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MC’s Interfaith Event Fosters Respect Across Cultures

The recent terrorist attacks targeting religious groups—from Pittsburgh to New Zealand to Sri Lanka—made international headlines spurring people all over the world to come together to unite against hate.

Rasha Alkhateeb (left) with her father

That’s precisely what happened at the third annual Interfaith Conversation held by the Global Nexus program at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center last month. The event included a traditional Iftar, the fast-breaking meal eaten after sunset during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Seemingly more urgent than ever, the conversations anchored on principles promoting unity and a sense of belonging, shunning the “us vs. them” mindset so often portrayed in today’s news cycle.

“The goal of the interfaith conversation is to increase the participants’ understanding and respect for ‘other’ religions, cultures and communities,” said Enas Elhanafi, director of the Global Nexus program at MC. “It aims to provide a welcoming environment and safe space for our diverse communities to get to know each other, ask questions and raise their own awareness.”

Guest speakers from Montgomery College, Montgomery County, faith-based organizations, as well as cultural and community groups led the discussion about building trust and civility in the community. Representatives from all Abrahamic religions were present and answered questions regarding teachings or tenets central to their faiths.

From left to right: Imam Hassan A. Amin, Rabbi James Hyman, Enas Elhanafi, Bishop Paul Walker Sr., Sayyid M. Syeed, and James L. Stowe

Bishop Paul Walker Jr. identified love as a central tenet of Christianity. “I believe love causes us to reach out to people who are not like ourselves, who are different. Instead of saying we are here to help, I would say we are here to serve, and if you take that mindset of service, it removes the superiority complex,” Walker said.

Imam Hassan Amin chose to highlight the treatment of women in Islam: “Women are special and precious, and we have to treat them as such. To me, the best tenet in Islam is to show kindness and compassion toward women.”

Rabbi James Hyman cited a story from the book of Exodus that illustrates the importance and difficulty of seeking wisdom. “It can be a struggle. That struggle can be the most meaningful, enriching, powerful experience of your life, but it is also likely to injure you. However, in that struggle, a sense of meaning and depth evolves,” he said. “I think it is such a powerful metaphor for those of us who not only embrace our faith but struggle with it, seeking the truth and finding the truth.”

Interfaith conversation leads to better understanding, collaboration, and unity in response to the societal challenges that we are facing in this political climate

Rasha Alkhateeb, a student at the University of Baltimore who attended the event, said that though Muslim herself, she had learned new things from the panelists during the discussion. Regarding recent attacks targeted at religious groups, Alkhateeb believes they are based not only on religion but on the groups’ minority status. “In a sense we are all the ‘other,’ depending on where we are. Events like these are one step toward bridging that.”

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, inspired this year’s theme, Elhanafi said, by showing an extraordinary example of leadership after shootings at two mosques in Christchurch in March this year. “We needed to honor and celebrate her courage, compassion, and leadership, her audacity and kindness during our interfaith conversation, to examine and reflect on her remarkable example of transformational servant leadership,” Elhanafi said.

Previous themes have focused on examining unconscious biases and its impact on equity and inclusion, as well as fostering understanding to build a more resilient community.

Elhanafi pointed out that the media’s misleading discourse that support negative stereotypes, joined by executive orders targeted at minority religious groups, have led to an increase of hate crimes and violence against various communities. The event sought to counteract that by providing a space for the community to come together.

“Interfaith conversation leads to better understanding, collaboration, and unity in response to the societal challenges that we are facing in this political climate,” she said.

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