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Common threads among different faiths

Utah Muslims, Jews and Christians to celebrate shared heritage Sunday

As talk of war with Iraq grows more pointed, local Muslims are looking to help Utahns understand not only the fact that they share common moral values, but that they value the religious pluralism most have found in their adopted home here.

As "people of the Book," Muslims share a heritage of faith with Jews and Christians through the prophet Abraham, and representatives of the three monotheistic traditions are gathering this weekend to celebrate their heritage and learn more about each other.

"Prophet Abraham: The Celebration of a Common Legacy" will be held Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. in the auditorium of the new Salt Lake City Main Library at 400 S. 200 East. The public is invited. Organizers say the event commemorates the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-adha (Festival of Sacrifice) that took place in mid-February. Holladay United Church of Christ, Congregation Kol Ami and the Muslim Forum of Utah have joined to sponsor the event, which will feature exhibits and speakers from each faith tradition. A movie on the hajj — the pilgrimage that Muslims are required to make to Mecca at least once during their lifetimes — will also be shown.

The event comes at a time when some evangelical Christian groups are playing up fears about Islam, characterizing the fanatic actions of a few as representative of the faith's teachings. Some have sought to demonize the prophet Muhammad, who authored the Quran, and in recent months several high-profile groups, including "The 700 Club," Jerry Falwell and former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines, have all derided Islam and its founder.

Several evangelical books have recently been published attempting to show that the Quran — the premiere Muslim scriptural text — encourages violence against all non-believers.

Muslim Forum organizer Asif Saberi said such accusations couldn't be further from the truth. Sunday's event will help provide some perspective on what Islam teaches and how it fits with Judaism and Christianity. The event's timing isn't coincidental, he said, noting that after Sept. 11 Muslims have often discussed what happened and "how a Muslim could do this."

During one of those conversations Saberi had with friends, talk turned to "what we can do to reassure our fellow Americans how different we are from those perpetrators." They wanted to organize an outreach to explain "how different mainstream Muslims think."

Saberi said he and other organizers also want to help educate their fellow Muslims about political issues so they can become more involved in the democratic process and "assume the responsibilities of citizenship while realizing the full benefits of being citizens here."

An estimated 20,000 Muslims have made Utah their home, many of them immigrants who have relocated here after fleeing oppressive political regimes in their homelands. Many "came from a system where they were never given the opportunity to participate in governance." Forum organizers want to help educate them "that this is a different pace, that they have rights, that participation is important and welcome and appreciated."

Jerald Dirks, whose Harvard Divinity School training eventually turned him from his Methodist preacher's pulpit to the teachings of Islam, is one of the presenters for the Sunday event.

He became a Muslim in 1993 after intense study of original biblical texts convinced him that the practices of Islam are much closer to the original Christianity of the New Testament than modern Protestantism or Catholicism are. A clinical psychologist who turned to a "healing profession" after he lost faith in the Methodism of his youth, Dirks believes some evangelical rhetoric is based on a "millennial movement" within conservative Christianity "to force the hand of God to precipitate (the battle of) Armageddon."

Dirks said believers think "they'll be gathered up in the Rapture prior to Armageddon, thereby avoiding mass destruction. They're trying to bring it on."

Such fanaticism doesn't lend itself to reason, he said, and falls so far outside the mainstream of true Christian teaching that most will dismiss it outright. People need to understand Muslim fanatics are also operating far outside the mainstream of Islam, he said.

While Israel has been a source of constant agitation in recent decades between Jews and Muslims, "throughout most of history, there has been a very vibrant and real cooperation between Islamic and Jewish communities throughout the world." Israel has become a "flash point" for hostilities that are too largely characterized as religious, he said, "when in fact the dispute is between Palestinians and Israelis." Many people don't realize, he said, that a large percentage of Palestinians are Christians, not Muslims.

Dirks said he'll talk about the shared prophetic tradition and religious history of the three faiths, exploring the common ground that exists in moral, ethical and spiritual teachings. "Nine of the Ten Commandments can be easily found in the Quran. Only one is not found, and that is to honor the Sabbath."

What Christians know as the "Golden Rule" is found in the Hadith, another Muslim scriptural text. "Muhammad says no person is truly a believer until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself." Other similarities abound, he said, noting the teachings of Jewish rabbis in the first through third centuries are very similar to what is found in the New Testament. Few people understand the common threads, he said, because most don't read the other traditions' religious texts.

"We have not just a shared religious history, but to a great extent, a shared moral and ethical system."