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US Interfaith Relations Strained by Mideast Volatility - 2003-04-07

Even before the war in Iraq began, U.S. President George W. Bush stressed to the world that the conflict would not be a war between Christianity and Islam. But Saddam Hussein's recent call for a "jihad" in response to the coalition invasion makes it clear that many in the Middle East don't see the war the way Mr. Bush sees it.

And religious leaders here in the United States say regardless of whether this conflict is perceived as religious, the volatile situation in the Middle East is having an impact on interfaith relations in America. Some leaders believe those relations have reached a crisis point. Maura Jane Farrelly reports.

By many accounts, the United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Precise numbers are difficult to come by, since the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't require people to answer questions about their religious identity. But according to a study conducted in 2001 by researchers at the City University of New York, nearly a quarter of all adults in the United States do not identify themselves as Christian. Jews and Muslims are, by far, the largest non-Christian religious groups. And this has meant that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the often violent disputes in the Middle East have, perhaps unavoidably, influenced the religious dialogue in the United States.

Scott Alexander, a professor of Islam at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, specializes in Christian-Muslim relations and says much had been done before September 11 to improve those relations. But the past 19 months, sayidrofessor Alexander, have proven to be a watershed.

"Where good relationships between people in different communities were in place before September 11 and before the war broke out, I have found that those relationships have only improved," he said. "Where there was suspicion and ignorance and misperception between people, then that situation has only worsened."

And the problem with that reality, according to some experts, is that, by and large, relations between Muslims and Christians before September 11 were marked by suspicion and ignorance and misperception. Scott Alexander says the Muslim community is partially responsible for this. That community is new to America, which means it's comprised mostly of immigrants. And those immigrants, as countless immigrant groups before them, have tended to live in enclaves, reluctant to reach out to the American mainstream.

But C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who directs the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance, says many mosques did recognize the need to open their doors to mainstream America after September 11.

"And then we saw a backlash to that, in which some people in the religious community, particularly those in the evangelical Christian community, began to be wary that a close identification with people from radically different faith traditions could imply agreement or affirmation of those traditions," he said.

Reverend Gaddy points to the case of David Benke as an example. The Evangelical Lutheran Pastor was suspended last year for participating in an interfaith prayer service in New York City's Yankee Stadium following the events of September 11. In announcing the suspension, church officials used the word "pagan" to describe the Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders who participated in that service.

Welton Gaddy says he believes interfaith relations have reached a crisis point, and he says the religious dialogue in the United States is riddled with animosity and misunderstanding.

But while that may describe relations between Christians and Muslims, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission says relations between Christians and Jews have never been better, "especially among evangelical Christians, because Jews have come to a new and deeper understanding of the depth and the breadth of evangelical support for Israel, come thick or thin. That we believe the Jews are God's chosen people, and that God blesses those that bless the Jews, and God curses those that curse the Jews, and we're going to support the Jews," said Mr. Land.

If, in fact, American Jews have come to an understanding of evangelical Christian support for Israel, it's an incomplete understanding, according to Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance. Reverend Gaddy says he's been asked to speak to a number of Jewish groups about evangelical support for Israel. He says many Jews are unaware of the scriptural and theological implications of this support.

"It's a coalition based on misunderstanding," he said. "Because the sovereignty of Israel in the evangelical Christian's interpretation of biblical prophesy is a precondition for the return of Christ, at which time Jews are given the opportunity to convert to Christianity, or to die."

Evangelical Christians aren't the only Americans finding prophetic meaning in current events. Last February, the American Muslim Council's then-executive director, Eric Vickers, suggested there was a divine message to be gleaned from the fact that the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Palestine, Texas, while carrying an Israeli astronaut. Mr. Vickers eventually resigned.

C. Welton Gaddy says so long as Americans continue to draw parallels between what they read in the newspapers and what they read in the Bible or the Torah or the Koran, interfaith relations will decline. And that, he says, will be a cultural tragedy, because the greatest example America has had to offer to the world is the delicate social balance known as "pluralism."