Vice President Joe Biden, national leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith traditions and student speakers reflected on the importance of unity and the need for Americans to come together and fight against Islamophobia at an Interfaith Gathering for Solidarity, Understanding and Peace in Gaston Hall on Wednesday.
The gathering featured remarks from University President John J. DeGioia and religious leaders the Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Protestant Chaplaincy Director Rev. Bryant Oskvig, Senior Pastor of the Third Street Church of God and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University Cheryl J. Sanders, Imam and President of The Nation’s Mosque Talib M. Shareef, Director of Social Justice and Inter-Group Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Senior Rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, Bhai Gurdarshan Singh of the Sikh Spiritual Center and The Most Blessed Tikhon, Archbishop of Washington of the Orthodox Church in America.
Student speakers included Khadija Mohamud (SFS ’17) and Laila Brothers (SFS ’18). The event was also attended by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Biden, who was not originally scheduled to speak at the gathering.
DeGioia addressed the necessity for such a gathering and cited recent worldwide instances of Islamophobia and discrimination against religious traditions in the wake of acts of terrorism as a rallying call for interreligious solidarity.
“There is an urgency at this moment,” DeGioia said. “There is no more appropriate time for us to stand together in solidarity with one another, no greater purpose than for us to come together to show our commitment to peace and to understanding. This coming together is the story of our nation, of who we are, of what we would expect of ourselves.”
The event also occurred approximately a week after Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s call to ban all Muslim travel to the United States and a day after the fifth Republican presidential debate.
Biden emphasized that it may be natural to become fearful after terrorist events, but that fear cannot affect attitudes toward Muslims or individuals of differing faith traditions.
“I know there is fear and unease around the world. The terrorist attacks in Beirut, in Paris, in California. Refugees fleeing the brutality of a civil war in Syria,” Biden said. “The resulting phobia and hate against Muslims in America and around the world, [is] a fear that is out of control in some places. Exploiting that fear, though, is unacceptable and completely counterproductive … [if] we turn our backs on the victims of evil and persecution, we abandon everything we say we’re about. So it’s up to us to recognize the fear — but also to relate — to help people understand what unites us.”
The service included musical prayer selections and readings from the Old and New Testaments as well as the Quran. The religious leaders spoke about the importance of having a singular human identity.
“Much has changed beginning with the 9/11 attacks and the terrorism abroad and now here in our own land, but we, we must not allow these things to change us,” Wuerl said. “Acts of evil, acts of terror happen because there are those who are willing to do them and then there are those that are willing to be silent. Today, we’re addressing the silence.”
Shareef said it is important that personal identity is not recognized by race or nationality, but by shared human existence.
“Adam had an identity. His identity was not a racial identity,” Shareef said. “His identity was not a national identity. His identity was not an ethnic identity. And so if we look at this identity … given to the first one by he who created him … was human.”
Lustig said understanding that all people are created equally would help bring people together.
“Imagine on this sun-filled day if suddenly we lived in a world where all humanity understand that each of us was created in the divine image. How might we behave so very differently?” Lustig said. “There would be dignity in our difference — race and gender and faith would not divide us — but would be celebrated. Bigotry and hatred would give way to tolerance and love.”
According to Biden, events like the gathering have the power to bring people back together.
“This service is something wonderful. It’s about transforming the fear that so many people have into what we’re all about, transforming it into love and grace that’s made us who we are,” Biden said. “It’s a spiritual power of community and of faith that in our darkest moments … out of the nation of many, we become one again.”
Oskvig said counteracting religious intolerance is an important part of Georgetown’s identity.
“The sense of Georgetown in the idea of having a religious identity that welcomes all religious identities and invites people to grow in that sense … is a beautiful, poignant counterbalance to the conversation at large,” Oskvig said. “Here we are at Georgetown, which makes very clear about its Catholic rootedness, but does so with a sense of an openness to people of different traditions and the way that these traditions can come into conversation with one another for the benefit of all.”
Lustig added his hopes for pluralism led by religious and political leaders in the District.
“I think those of us who believe in pluralism in America cannot be quiet, and I hope that students and faculty and members of the Washington community will not be shy when people speak out and say things that are bigoted or say things that become fear mongers,” Lustig said. “I think that we have to act on our beliefs.”
Brothers spoke about her experience with discrimination due to her Muslim faith and cited the need for solidarity.
“In these times of turmoil, it is easy to lose sight of the good in the world, to divide along political lines, to stay silent, when we should speak up,” Brothers said. “But we must stand by each other, not as Republicans and Democrats, not as Muslims and non-Muslims, but as the writers of history, as the architects of our children’s future.”
Ari Shapiro (SFS ’18), who attended the event, said the gathering was an inspiration for further action at Georgetown. He cited last week’s attendance of the Jumu’ah and Shabbat services by members of both the Jewish and Muslim communities at Georgetown as an example of how interfaith dialogue can strengthen relationships on campus.
“Building a really strong relationship and connection of understanding and love between the two communities that have historically had all sorts of hate and problems between them, and building this learning and understanding, is going to be the biggest step in going forward and creating peace,” Shapiro said.
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