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Interfaith Coalition seeks to bolster ties between faiths

September 10, 2010|By DON AINES
  • Dolores Ruskie, Michael Hydes and Ed Poling listen as Salih V. Yumlu, right, talks at a recent Interfaith Coalition meeting.
Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, people from many faiths gathered with what is now the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County to find common ground and build bridges of understanding. Opinions are mixed as to whether the divide between faiths has widened or narrowed during the nine years since the terrorist attacks.

"I see changes. I see good changes," said Ed Poling, pastor of Hagerstown Church of the Brethren and coordinator of the Interfaith Coalition, which is made up of clergy and laypeople who work to promote peace, respect and compassion between faiths.

People of good will are more "aware of the culture clash within our own country," but also are yearning to make connections with those of different faiths, Poling said.

The events of 9/11 "brought out the very worst part of the human being ... If you are a Muslim, you are scared," Salih V. Yumlu said this week at a meeting of the coalition. Some of the apprehension Muslims felt at that time lingers, said Yumlu, who is a layman and treasurer of the interfaith coalition.

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"I would say it's mixed," Rabbi Fred Raskind of Congregation B'nai Abraham said of interfaith relations.

"For some people, there are no issues. Others have good, warm working relationships ... until there's an issue. That can be a political issue or an international issue," Raskind said in a recent telephone interview. "They look at it (issue) through the lenses or prisms they have," but differences of opinion do not have to permanently divide people, he said.

"People will, for whatever reason, find things they can come together on," Raskind said.

The Interfaith Coalition will seek to strengthen those connections Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m. during the International Day of Prayer for Peace at Dunker Church on the grounds of Antietam National Battlefield. Members of different faiths will present songs, prayers and statements for peace, Poling said.

What was once the Washington County Council of Churches broadened to become the Hagerstown Area Religious Council, Poling said. The Interfaith Coalition is part of that council, he said.

One does not have to look hard for signs of religious and cultural conflict: A proposed Islamic cultural center in New York City, a Florida pastor threatening to burn Qurans, and Western protests against an Iranian court's sentence of death by stoning for a woman accused of adultery illustrate the chasms that still exist. This ninth anniversary of 9/11 falls during the same week in which Jews observe Rosh Hashanah and Muslims mark the final day of Ramadan.

"Every society is governed by three distinct factors -- religion, traditions and culture," Yumlu said in an interview last week. He said he believes culture, both in the East and in the West, is the driving force behind intolerance, not religion.

"I'm going to say that it has changed. I can't say it's better or worse. It just changed," Temm Shonin Bikle, a Buddhist monk, said of relations between the faiths since 9/11. However, the heated rhetoric that was once the bailiwick of "shock jocks" has become prevalent in the mainstream media, he said.

"What you get is ratings," Bikle said.

"There are millions of Muslims who would not claim extremists as role models," said Michael Hydes, pastor of New Light Metropolitan Community Church.

"There are a lot of people that use religion to their own ends," said Hydes, who moved to the United States from Great Britain after 9/11.

To condemn all followers of a faith for the acts of extremists is, he said, "like blaming the stove for burning the stew."

"There have been Muslims in this country long enough to be established as part of the woodwork that is America," said Howard Ruskie, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Hagerstown.

"I hate these people that did that," Yumlu, who is married to a Christian, said of the extremists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. "I don't know what they achieved."

"There are always going to be the unscrupulous who take something good and pervert it," Ruskie said.

Among those sitting around the table at Poling's church, there was some difference of opinion about the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero. Dolores Ruskie said her son lives in New York and told her there is little opposition there to the center's location.

"How far do you have to go away for it to be OK? Half a mile? A mile? Five miles?" Yumlu asked.

However, while Muslims have the right to build the center at that site, Yumlu said, he would opt for compromise.

"I would say, 'Let's not build it there.' Why should we irritate people anyway?" Yumlu said.

Yumlu recalled that the former pastor of his wife's church had invited people of different faiths to a retreat months before 9/11. In early 2002, the group held a forum attended by more than 300 people at which Christians, Muslims and Jews talked about their faiths.

"I think it's time again to refresh everyone's memory," he said.

Raskind noted that the mosque in Hagerstown, like other churches, has invited the community for hospitality in the past and he has spoken there before. Congregation B'nai Abraham also reaches out with events such as its Jewish Food Festival, which this year is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 24.

"People aren't always interested in talking theology ... but food we like," Raskind said.

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