Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders spoke out Wednesday (Sept. 8) in Palo Alto against rising bigotry toward Muslims and a plan (which was aborted on Thursday) by a small, nondenominational Christian group in Florida to burn the Quran, Islam's most holy book, on Sept. 11.
About 15 leaders gathered at First Baptist Church in Palo Alto to express their support for the Muslim community and to ask people of all faith groups to practice tolerance.
The leaders said they are concerned with opposition to building a mosque near where the Twin Towers in New York City were destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. They decried the planned "International Burn a Koran Day" by the 50 or so followers of Dove World Outreach Center Pastor Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla.
Jones has called Islam the "religion of the devil" and has written a book entitled "Islam is of the Devil."
Among the speakers at the Wednesday press conference were Rev. Randle (Rick) Mixon, First Baptist Church of Palo Alto; Imam Aladdin El-Bakri of the West Valley Muslim Association in Saratoga; Samina Sundas, founding executive director of the American Muslim Voice; and Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.
"I just got back from 10 days in Boise, Idaho, where I grew up and was visiting my family and my 92-year-old mother," Mixon said in a separate interview.
"It stirred memories of my own father, who was a Baptist minister in the conservative, evangelical tradition. He would've been at the press conference in solidarity. He believed so deeply in our tradition that God is a God of love; Jesus is a prince of peace. There is no room for hatred; there is no room for bigotry; there is no room for the kind of prejudice we've been seeing. It's really appalling that it comes from Christians," he said.
Another minister reminded participants that in the 18th century Baptists were a persecuted group who supported the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Mixon said.
"What goes around comes around," Mixon added. "Those of us who have known oppression should stand with those being oppressed."
El-Bakri said his hope was for people to build the "twin towers of love and compassion" and spoke of how many times in the Quran that Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus are mentioned in positive ways. Mohammad is mentioned only four times, he said.
When burning the Quran, people are really burning the teachings of the Judeo-Christian traditions as well, he said.
Lewis noted that Jews have experienced the burning of their sacred texts many times, including during the Nazi era.
"I hope the result (of standing together) will be that we learn to relish each others' sacred texts," said Lewis, who said he planned to read the Quran again.
He also said that rising anti-Islamic sentiment has spurred groups to "join hands with one another and to come to a new resolve about how important interfaith relations are and ... how much we (should) relish the diversity in community."
"In some ways, Muslims are newcomers in terms of their public presence and increasing number," Lewis said. But Muslims are "just the kind of people we want. We share core values."
Extremism, however, can be found in all religious groups, he said.
"Every faith tradition is capable of distortions, usually from extreme elements. It's true in the Jewish tradition. It's true in the Christian tradition. And it's true in the Islamic tradition," he said. "But the much larger moderate middle, the community of devoted adherents -- we know we can live together peacefully."
He said his involvement in interfaith groups over the years has been "a blessing."
"I can't express how I've been blessed by the dialogue and by working together in so many ways," said Lewis, who added that he found the press conference profoundly moving.
Samina Sundas, founding executive director of American Muslim Voice, said that she believes most Americans are compassionate, kind and open-minded people and they don't feel the same as Jones.
"I believe that these groups (of extremists) are few and far between but they are loud and funded by special-interest groups. Write letters; speak. And join the human family," she said.
An interfaith rally will take place on Friday (Sept. 10) at James McEntee Plaza, 70 West Hedding St., San Jose, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sundas said she hopes Palo Alto residents will attend.
Multifaith Voices is hosting an Interfaith Witness for Peace gathering on Sept. 19 at Heritage Park on Channing Avenue in Palo Alto from 3 to 5 p.m. The World Peace Village, an inter-generational event where families and individuals can walk through six centers representing a center of worship for different faiths, will be on display at the park.
At 4 p.m., an interfaith peace service will be held at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 751 Waverley St., Palo Alto, with music, prayers and speakers from Palestine/Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wednesday's press conference was organized by The Santa Clara Council of Churches, Interfaith Council on Economics and Justice and was endorsed by dozens of interfaith and inter-community groups.