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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Multi-Faith Holiday Peace Vigil
December 23, 2001

"Assalámu Aláikum." That is, in Arabic, the customary Muslim greeting, "Peace be with you."

In Hebrew, of course, it's "Shalom." Whichever form we choose, let's turn to our neighbor and wish him and her "Assalámu Aláikum," "Shalom," "Peace be with you."

For the past 15 years, World Citizens for Peace has held a Peace Vigil on the Sunday before Christmas, the Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Other major religions also have important holidays in December:

In Buddhism, December 8 was Bodhi Day, celebrating the enlightenment of Buddha under the Bo tree.

December 9-16 was Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. after its desecration by foreign troops.

In Islam, December 17 was E'id al-Fitr, a joyous celebration of the end of Ramadan and the month of fasting.

And last month, November 14, was the Hindu holiday Diwali, also a "Festival of Lights," when houses are decorated, candles are lit to signify the existence of God, and gifts are exchanged.

So, this year we're having a "Holiday Peace Vigil" not only to acknowledge the special holidays of all these important religions, but also in the hope of involving members of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism to participate to help us make the Vigil a multi-faith witness for peace.

All of these great religions have their heroes and heroines of peace those in the century just past whose faith-based commitment to peace and nonviolence were recognized by the entire world with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Buddhism, there were the Dalai Lama of Tibet in 1989 and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar) in 1991.

Christianity was represented by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1964 and Mother Teresa in 1979.

Islam and Judaism were recognized jointly in both 1978 and 1994 when the political leaders of Egypt, Israel, and Palestine shared the Prize for their efforts to bring peace between their peoples.

And although he was never awarded the Peace Prize, Hinduism produced the greatest of the 20th century's peace heroes the "great soul," Mahatma Gandhi.

The yearning for peace transcends boundaries of both nation and faith. Who can identify country or religion in the following quotations taken from the acceptance speeches of the Nobel Peace laureates?

"Peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. .. Peace is all of these and more and more." (1)

"Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. ... Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free." (2)

"Any life lost in war is the life of a human being ..." (3)

"And I think that in our family we don't need bombs and guns, to destroy, to bring peace just get together, love one another, bring that peace, that joy, that strength of presence of each other in the home. And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world." (4)

"Peace for us is an asset and in our interest. It is an absolute human asset that allows an individual to freely develop his individuality unbound by any regional, religious or ethnic fetters." (5)

"The message that the one, invisible God created Man in His image, and hence there are no higher and lower orders of man, has fused with the realization that morality is the highest form of wisdom and, perhaps, of beauty and courage too." (6)

"In a real sense, nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it." (7)

Those quotations are from (1) Menachem Begin, Israel, 1978, (2) The Dalai Lama, Tibet, 1989, (3) Anwar Sadat, Egypt, 1978, (4) Mother Teresa, India, 1979, (5) Yasser Arafat, Palestine, 1994, (6) Shimon Peres, Israel, 1994, and (7) Martin Luther King, Jr., United States, 1964.

The Rev. Dr. King concludes:

"So we must fix our vision not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweet music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from a negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world."

- Jim Stoffels, Chairman