Tulsa Muslim Javeria Khan and Christian Ethan Sawyer sparred politely Thursday as people milled about the fourth-floor rotunda at the State Capitol.
Khan was there to attend “Muslim Day at the Capitol” as a member of the Islamic faith and a resident of Oklahoma.
Sawyer said he was raised as a Muslim by his mother and Egyptian stepfather. Now a Christian convert, he was one of about seven people who shouted warnings to Muslims as they walked into the State Capitol building for the third annual Muslim advocacy day.
The pair’s conversation seemed to symbolize the growing sense of empowerment that Muslim community members feel about their faith and their rights as Americans.
“In our third year, this is a huge shift. When we started ‘Muslim Day at the Capitol’, there was a lot of fear about just coming to the Capitol,” said Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma chapter (CAIR-OK).
“This year, I feel like people are ready to advocate. There is a sense of belonging.”
Dr. Kamran Abbasi, a Tulsa internist, agreed.
“We just want our representatives to know that we are their constituents,” Abbasi said. “Maybe some of them don’t care what we think but we want them to know that we are contributing members of society and we have families and concerns just like everyone else.”
Soltani said more than 200 people registered for the event, which was held for the first part of the day at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 222 NW 15.
When Muslims arrived at the Capitol for the second half of the one-day conference, they were met with about 150 supporters from the interfaith community, as well as the small group of protesters.
The Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma had issued a call for volunteers to help create a “corridor of support” to escort Muslim participants into the building. The supporters sang songs like “America the Beautiful,” “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Your Land.”
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Megan Howell, of Norman, brought her two children, Wyatt, 3, and Ruby, 4, who held up a neon green sign that said “You are Welcome” as Muslims walked by.
“I just feel like they (Muslims) really need support in the community and it’s the least I could do,” said Howell, adding that she is agnostic.
The Rev. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said he was pleased to see the large gathering of supporters.
“I think it’s wonderful that we have an interfaith community that refuses to participate in bigotry and, instead, endorses and celebrates the right of people to worship according to their faith tradition,” he said.
The group of seven protesters outside the Capitol said they came to share the truth with Muslims and their supporters about the dangers of Islam.
“Thank God for Donald Trump. It’s God’s grace and mercy that he is president,” the Rev. Jim Gilles, of Evansville, Ind., shouted as Muslims walked by him on their way into the Capitol.
Other protesters Sawyer, of Oklahoma City, and Darrell James said they wanted to share the Gospel with their Muslim neighbors.
“I was just inspired to come out here and warn my neighbor,” said James. “Jesus says love your neighbor. I feel that way about my Muslim neighbor. I want them to know the truth — to come to a relationship to God through Jesus Christ.”
Once the Muslims gathered inside the Capitol building for Zuhr prayer on the fourth-floor rotunda, both supporters and protesters followed them.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, welcomed the crowd and presented Soltani with a citation of support for the Muslim advocacy day.
Several protesters who refused to give their names said they were there to show opposition not to Muslims but to CAIR as an organization with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas terrorist group.
Soltani said the opponents’ accusations were false.
“It is unacceptable for people who propagate hate to say ‘we accept Muslims’ but not the groups that support them,” he said.
Protesters and Muslims mingled together for a time, sometimes holding intense but not hostile discussions with each other.
Meanwhile, protester Gilles told CAIR-OK board member Saad Mohammed that he hoped this would be the last year for the advocacy day because he hoped President Donald Trump would declare CAIR a terrorist organization.
Mohammed replied that regardless of what happened with CAIR, Muslims would return to the Capitol.
Khan and Sawyer finally seemed to agree to disagree about whether or not Islam is an essentially peaceful or war-mongering religion.
Khan said she saw Sawyer and the other protesters when she walked into the Capitol and she wanted the chance to talk with them.
“The point is to be able to have a dialogue. It’s so much harder to pin those beliefs on someone who is flesh and blood standing right in front of you,” Khan said.