Feb. 8, 2005 At 6:15 on Monday night Bethania Hall was almost empty, with only five or six people waiting patiently in a room set for 80. A sign outside the hall tucked up off Main Street at the Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church announced that Imam Yahya Hendi would deliver a lecture beginning at 6:30, but from the looks of things as the appointed hour approached, Hendi's speech would fall on few ears.
Hendi's presence on the island at the request of Rabbi Arthur Starr and the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas was well publicized in local media, and the internationally recognized speaker for the mainstream Muslim community, had already made three public appearances, one each at the synagogue, the Islamic Center and the St. Thomas Reformed Church.
But Starr said in an interview last week that it was hoped Hendi's final Monday lecture, "Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Confrontation or Cooperation," would draw the largest, most diverse crowd. "Imam Hendi has a very powerful message. When we first met I was drawn by his passion and how well he articulates what he believes," Starr said.
Still, as the minutes ticked past with scarcely more than a half-dozen people turning up, it seemed that Starr's hope was in vain, that the residents of St. Thomas would confirm the ever-growing perception that American culture is concerned only with the lurid and the violent. But then, as if a bus filled with ecumenical tourists had just unloaded out front, the room began to fill, and then flood as more than a dozen chairs were added to accommodate the sudden crowd that grew to around 100.
Hendi wasted no time and did not mince words when he stepped up to the microphone. "Killing in the holy lands, attacks on schools in Russia, beheadings on TV, airplanes crashing into buildings," he began, going on to suggest that if we believe the headlines we must conclude the world is being consumed by religious warfare. Hendi, however, has come to a different conclusion.
Skipping easily back and forth between the Old Testament, which forms the scriptural foundation of both Judaism and Christianity, and the Quran, the Muslim holy book, literally quoting chapter and verse, Hendi laid before the crowd an argument that the three religions share abundantly more similarities than differences.
Beginning with the Ten Commandments and moving on through specific narratives and parables, Hendi outlined remarkable and unexpected similarities between the Holy Scriptures. To hear Hendi read them, the Ten Commandments given to Moses are almost indiscernible from a set of rules contained in the Quran. Not only do the religions have 10 each, but they follow the same exact order, treat precisely the same social and moral maladies, and, according to Hendy, "are 99.9 percent the same."
From Genesis to judgment day, Hendi detailed how "two-thirds of the Quran narratives are the same stories contained in the Old Testament." And in some ways, according to Hendi, the Quran goes even further in its discussion of personages and facts central to Christian and Jewish faith. For instance, he said the Quran discusses the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and claims for the Christian savior even more miraculous powers than does the New Testament. He also said the Quran mentions the mother of Christ, Mary, twice as many times as the Bible.
But such arguments were as parlor tricks compared to the central point of the Imam's lecture, and the passion behind it.
In a world plagued by the violence and destruction caused by a seemingly endless series of conflicts between Christians, Jews and Moslems, Hendi says he has been called to point out the simple fact that the word Islam itself derives from the Arabic world for peace.
"In the midst of this unrest God calls upon all of us to reaffirm our bonds across the face of this planet," he said, over and over again returning to his central point that peace, not war, is the work of God-centered communities.
"And if you think you're too small alone to make a difference, try to go to sleep tonight with a mosquito in your bedroom," he said.
The lecture gave way to a brief question and answer period where Hendi shared the stage with Starr and the leaders of Frederick Lutheran, Senior Pastor Stephan Kienberger, and Associate Pastor Rochelle Lewis.
The four fielded questions that ranged from one person wanting to know why "Tibetan Buddhists seem to be the only religious group who actually pray" for their oppressors Tibet was overrun by Chinese forces in 1950 and has been occupied ever since to another who wanted to know how jihadists, those Moslems engaged in holy war and acts of terrorism, justify their actions.
There were no easy answers forthcoming Monday night, but there was a strong sense in the room that the dialogue between members of different religions has begun on St. Thomas.
Hendi's message, reminiscent of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King in its call for cooperation to cross all barriers of race, class, religion and gender, ended with a call for hard work and for hope.
"Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders must begin marching together for peace around the world," he said, adding, "The very fact that you all came out tonight after your busy days and your work gives me hope. You are the hope that I have."
Hendi is the Muslim chaplain of the first American university to staff a full time Imam. He is also chaplain of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He has earned two master's degrees and is a Ph.D. candidate who has published on numerous topics, including "Women and Gender Relations in Islam," and "The Coming of the Messiah." He is among the Muslim leaders who met with President George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
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