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Relations among American Jews, Muslims, Christians at low point

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Some Christians say Islam promotes violence. Jews feel they are being scapegoated by opponents of a U.S. war on Iraq. A Muslim leader wonders if there's a divine message in the breakup of the shuttle carrying an Israeli astronaut.

In the buildup to war, religious leaders say, interfaith relations in America have been poisoned, causing damage it may take years to heal.

While some efforts to find common ground continue, observers say mistrust is high -- at a level that would have been unthinkable before the Sept. 11 attacks -- and has worsened with the move toward an Iraq invasion.

"We face a real crisis in interfaith relations for the days ahead," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington.

The tensions can be seen in several recent public clashes:

Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, said at a March 3 church forum: "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this." He later apologized, but Jews complain the sentiment is widespread.

Last month, the Christian Coalition held a symposium on U.S. Muslims featuring speakers who have denounced Islam as endorsing violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the coalition conference was "an Islamophobic hate-fest."

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading Islamic scholar and professor at George Washington University, condemned the "shrill voices of exclusivists in all monotheistic religions" and said "strident voices that come from all three camps must quiet down."

Others agree.

"For those who harbor gross stereotypes, misperceptions, suspicions and antipathies toward people of religions different from our own, Sept. 11 has done nothing but made a sorry state of affairs even worse," said Scott Alexander, director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

The Iraq situation has caused more problems by blurring political and religious views, said Gaddy.

He is among many who have criticized President Bush's use of religious language during speeches in which he has defended the need for military action. In his State of the Union address, for instance, Bush said, "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity."

Muslim leaders have said Bush's comments feed the perception that he is waging war on Islam.

"When you hear both religious and political leaders using the language of moral absolutes to talk about military and political initiatives, whoever is in disagreement with that is put in the awkward position of not just holding a different idea, but opposing righteousness," Gaddy said.

But Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said comments by Bush and his Christian supporters have been misunderstood.

"I don't think the president or any evangelical Christian would say God is on our side," Land said. "We are far more concerned about doing what God would have us to do, which is a far different thing and a much more humble approach."

Mideast violence has been another source of escalating hostility -- not just between Jews and Muslims, but also between Jews and liberal Christians.

Liberal Christians have repeatedly voiced concern for victims of violence on both sides, but they also have joined Muslims in aggressively criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and accusing the United States and Israel of indifference to Palestinian suffering.

"There is very little dialogue right now between Episcopalians and Jews," said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who spent 30 years as head of interfaith relations for the Anti-Defamation League. "It's a time of crisis."


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