Today (Wednesday, September 8), an interfaith group from various religious traditions in Oklahoma’s capital city held a news conference to call for peace and unity in a time of challenging economic circumstances and varied observances of the anniversary of terrorist attacks on America.
A specific focus of the press event was to criticize announced plans of a Florida minister to burn copies of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. The gathering was held at Church of the Open Arms on North Pennsylvania in Oklahoma City.
Organizers sought “to show solidarity and support for the Muslim community, victims of groundless and outrageous charges and accusations.” Organizers said they had joined together out of concern over divisive actions tied to the approach of September 11.
Bruce Prescott, representing a group known as Mainstream Baptists, began his remarks with an apology “to the Muslim community.” He said the Florida fundamentalist planning to burn the Quran “does not represent all Evangelicals or all Christians.” He encouraged others to read the book, “not to burn it.”
State Sen. Andrew Rice, an Oklahoma City Democrat, spoke about his brother’s death as a result of the 9/11 attacks on New York City’s Twin Towers. While acknowledging the free speech rights of those assailing Islam, he said such people should “not hide behind the Constitution or the flag” to justify their acts. He said he appreciated Muslims in the city area who are “our doctors, attorneys and teachers.”
Rev. Mark Christian of First Unitarian Church was concerned that each year’s 9/11 anniversary allows some to “rip open the wounds again and again.” Dr. George Cooper of the local Ba’hai community said there was essential agreement in “the holy texts” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Dr. Kirt Moelling of Lakeside Methodist Church, lamented “the fact that we see so much hatred” in America today. Moelling, who also serves as president of the board of church and society for Oklahoma’s United Methodist Conference, read the conference’s statement opposing “legal, economic and social discrimination” against any faith community or people.
A statement from Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry was read by Dr. Robin Meyers, who teaches at OCU and is pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church. Henry’s comments incorporated quotations from Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Henry said OCU was “proud of our Muslim students, and proud of our country.”
Razi Hashmi, representing the local Muslim community, expressed appreciation for the “beautiful” expressions of justice, peace and solidarity at the press conference. He raised concerns about what he termed “increasing Islamaphobia” around the United States.
Warren Jensen, a Norman minister who did not speak at the event, provided to CapitolBeatOK a prepared statement supporting the organizers’ goals. Jensen said his congregation “believes in respecting and protecting the civil, constitutional, and human rights of all people. We support freedom of religion and freedom of information.”
Jensen said that at this Sunday’s services for United Church, he planned to read “a passage from the [Quran] in solidarity with … national clergy who believe that information promotes understanding of other cultures and beliefs. Burning books is an archaic response to a fear of the unknown.” Jenson also said, “Hatred and discrimination are not Christian values. Jesus himself emphasized the importance of welcoming the stranger in our midst.”
Facilitating the event was Nathaniel Batchelder, Central Oklahoma Human Rights Alliance (COHRA) Board Member, with the help of Rev. Chris Moore, Associate Minister, Mayflower Congregational UCC. “We stand with our Muslim friends and neighbors against the false accusations that are dividing Americans, made only for political gain,” Batchelder.
Fielding questions from reporters, Hashmi said he believes things “will get better.” Referencing the messages of the day, he said, “This is a sign of progress, of hope. This is America.” Hashmi later said that while the minister in Florida is burning the Quran in “mockery,” he would “rather be praying with friends “of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, for those who died.”
Sen. Rice, in dialogue with the gathered journalists, said that good can come from bad, recalling the months after September 11, 2001, when “New York City, not known for small town relationships” became “a gentler and more unified place.” Rice said, “I’m not going to let Al-Quaeda change America.” Rice said the United States should avoid tendencies to suppress speech or differences, as happens in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Rev. Kathy McCallie, minister at Church of the Open Arms, welcomed the group at the start of the press conference, and closed the gathering with a prayer of thankfulness for the “safe and respectful place” to gather.
Organizations cosponsoring the news conference included Central Oklahoma Labor Council, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-OK), Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), Central Oklahoma Human Rights Alliance (COHRA), Church of the Open Arms UCC, Cimarron Alliance, First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Oklahoma Chapter (CAIR-OK), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mayflower Congregational Church UCC, The Peace House, and Respect Diversity Foundation.
At the end of the press conference, Hashmi announced an Interfaith Community Service Day had been scheduled for the anniversary of the terror attacks, to support the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank, on Saturday September 11.