Vigil Points to Interfaith Inroads

With Chanukah bracketed by major Christian and Muslim celebrations, last month might have been a propitious time to find common ground between the Abrahamic faiths.

Instead, a pair of incidents occurring within days of each other reveals the breadth of the cultural divide.

Prompted by recent car bombings of two synagogues in Turkey and a mosque in India, local leaders of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths came together for a vigil on Dec. 7 to publicly condemn such acts of violence as "nothing less than vicious murders."

"The Muslim community unequivocally condemns such discriminate and indiscriminate acts of violence against any innocent human being," said Mohannad Molos, a director of the Orange County Islamic Foundation, known as the Mission Viejo mosque, reading a statement that represented 70 Islamic centers in Southern California.

"This is truly a breakthrough moment in local interfaith relations, for to condemn terrorists who kill Jews in synagogues is perceived by Muslim militants as being comparable to treason," said Rabbi Allen Krause, of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El in a message to congregants. "It’s not an easy thing to do."

Even so, the courageous clerics were all but eclipsed by the controversy over an Irvine flag football tournament for young Islamic men with team names such as Intifada, Soldiers of Allah and Mujahideen.

The 29-year-old organizer, Tarek Shawky, conceded the names were chosen without "much forethought" to serve "as a positive source of team pride." Organizers maintain that "intifada," for example, means the universal struggle against oppression, despite its use by various Palestinian groups that promote suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

Jewish leaders said the names showed cultural insensitivity that risked inciting harmful activity.

"This is taking a political situation that’s explosive and bringing it to the parks of Irvine," said Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Costa Mesa.

Legally, the city lacks the authority to bar the tournament, Greenspan said. She likened the situation to professional and college teams that dropped names such as Warriors and Crusaders without a threat of legal action but under heightened pressure over cultural awareness.

A similar explanation came from Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who fielded a call from an angry resident decrying the team names as "hate speech" on public lands.

"There is a moral issue here, not a legal one," said the constituent, who asked not to be identified. "He’s hiding behind political correctness."

Whether the intent was provocative or an instance of jock bravado, "I suspect that many local Muslims are embarrassed by the situation and wish they could exert more influence on the young people involved," Krause said.

The team names are a vivid reminder of the cultural blinders that keep faiths isolated despite their similarities.

The public condemnation against recent bombings of religious centers by leaders of Orange County’s Islamic community grew out of interfaith work begun in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We perceive ourselves as serving the community and doing humanitarian efforts," said Molos, of the Mission Viejo mosque, which has about 2,000 members. Last spring, congregants from the mosque, Beth El and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach raised a house together in Mexico. The priest and the rabbi recently urged the imam to be more visible opposing acts of violence by Islamic radicals.

"We never viewed our function as doing that," Molos said, leaving public statements about world events to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which maintains a local office in Anaheim. "We felt that was enough."

There is a growing recognition now of the importance of public advocacy, Molos said, noting that the young Muslim community made up of immigrants has been preoccupied with achieving economic certainty. "This is like the Mexican community, focused on putting food on the table," he said.

The Rev. Will Crist, of St. Mary’s, said "Sept. 11 not only knocked down some buildings." It also revealed "our ignorance of people who live around the corner from each other."

He described a conversation between the religious leaders about a scriptural passage that took place at a Laguna Beach restaurant. In the passage, Jesus replies to a question about the most important commandment, saying "to love thy neighbor." "That is as good as a summation of the Quran," said one of the Muslims present.

"We knew we had found a common mountain top," Crist said.

"We’re here to mourn a tragic loss," he continued, "but the greatest leverage we have is here with each other; we become a community.

"We can do this in Southern California," Crist said, "to turn swords into plowshares and live in peace."

Perhaps the next interfaith dialog should take place on the gridiron.

The American-Muslim Experience, a panel discussion featuring five leaders from the local Muslim community, in a panel discussion with Rabbi Arnold Rachlis and the Rev. Fred Plumer of Irvine United Church of Christ, will take place Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m. at University Synagogue in Irvine.