imam_hendi.jpg (2298 bytes)Muslim imam promotes interfaith dialog

He has met with two U.S. presidents, lectured on Islam in scores of countries and appeared on global television. And on successive days in February, Imam (prayer leader) Yahya Hendi drove from his Frederick MD home to ecumenical gatherings in Cumberland and Columbia PA, each at least 80 miles away, bringing the same message that has made him a leading Muslim proponent of interfaith dialogue in the U.S.

Hendi converses with everyone, from small-town churchgoers to heads of state, in his search for common ground. “Everyone has room around the table,” Hendi said in a recent interview. “I would not imagine the American table without Jews — all forms of Judaism; without Christianity — all forms of Christianity; without Islam — all forms of Islam, without Buddhism and Hinduism and atheism. All people are on the table and no one should be left out.”

His welcoming attitude and moderate views on the role of Muslim women and Middle East politics are at odds with the extreme forms of Islam many Americans know from the daily violence of the Iraq war and from terrorist attacks around the world. But Hendi, raised in the West Bank city of Nablus, said he sees in his adopted nation a truer expression of Islamic principles of tolerance, justice and equality than in many Middle Eastern countries. Hendi, 42, came to America for graduate school and has been a U.S. citizen for 15 years.

“I am proud to be an American and I want to be used as a bridge between the East and West, between America and the Muslim world,” said Hendi. He has been building that connection since at least since 1997, when Hendi, educated in Jordan and Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, became chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He regards that job as a form of military service. “To offer my ministry and my support to our soldiers — for me, that’s priceless,” he said.

A decade ago, Georgetown University in Washington DC named Hendi its first Muslim chaplain. The Jesuit school was the first U.S. college to create such a position. Hendi said the Georgetown job fulfills his dream of ministering and teaching at the same institution. Along with offering spiritual and career guidance to several hundred Muslim students at the school, Hendi, together with a Roman Catholic priest and a rabbi, teaches a popular course called Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue. The class, focusing on current events, teaches students “how you can debate issues about which you are passionate without necessarily becoming angry, without fighting, without screaming,” Hendi said.

Working in the capital has also put Hendi in touch with govern-ment leaders. In 2000, President Clinton invited him to read from the Quran at a White House ceremony commemorating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Hendi also gave a benediction at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

After the 9-11 attacks, Hendi has met with Pres. George Bush at least four times, including a 2003 discussion at the Afghan embassy shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “I spoke about how war in Iraq is not the solution politically or even religiously,” Hendi said. “I also spoke about how it does not enhance our national interest.”

The U.S. State Department has recognized his outreach abilities. They enlisted him for several diplomatic missions to Muslim nations.

Hendi’s high profile has come with personal risks. A married father of four, he said his work has made him a target for threats by Muslims and non-Muslims who condemn his interfaith outreach. But he is determined to continue traveling widely to spread his message.

“Remember that it does not matter how long you live,” Hendi said. “What matters is what you live for.”

– edited from The Associated Press, March 06, 2008
PeaceMeal, March/April 2008

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