Valley Religious Leaders Urge Peace, Tolerance

Sepempter 10, 2011

Valley Religious Leaders Urge Peace, Tolerance
Islamic center ceremony unites diverse groups

By Heather Somerville / The Fresno Bee

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, more than 100 gathered at the Islamic Cultural Center in northeast Fresno to call for peace and reconciliation, and for an end to the discrimination Muslims have faced in the nation’s war on terror.

The attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., should have taught Americans about the importance of religious tolerance – but a decade later, the country hasn’t learned that lesson, said Nancy Meyer, the evening’s featured speaker.

Instead, she said, the backlash against the Muslim community and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have only created more intolerance and violence.

“Our country’s response to [the terrorists’] acts was to mimic them,” Meyer said. Meyer, who lives in Nebraska, advocates for religious tolerance through the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization formed by the families of 9/11 victims.

Children gathered from the service including Annie Gardner, 12, left, release pigeons near the end of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno’s special commemorative interfaith service Saturday night in Fresno. Meyer’s sister-in-law, Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, died when United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. She was three months pregnant at the time.

The event was held Saturday rather than on today’s 9/11 anniversary so religious leaders could attend – many will lead their own church services today – and to accommodate Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s schedule.

In her remarks, Swearengin called on Fresno to use the 9/11 anniversary to “recommit ourselves to where we’re going as a community.”

Remembering what the nation lost on that day, she said, should further Fresno’s resolve to improving its economy and embracing its diversity.

The interfaith crowd of Christians, Sikhs and Muslims offered a glimpse of religious acceptance among Fresno’s diverse communities, but religious leaders cautioned that the city “has not started” to bridge its differences, said Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center.

Abu-Shamsieh said that despite a decade of efforts to educate the community about Islam, wide gulfs remain between the center and other religious organizations.
Like many Muslims around the country, some members of the center have suffered persecution.

The center hasn’t been attacked since 9/11 – although threatening phone calls are not unusual – but leaders say they’ve had to be more cautious.

Their vigilance was on full display Saturday night – police cars were parked in front of the center, and Abu-Shamsieh made an effort to greet each visitor and offer to take them on a tour. He said it’s part of his effort to know each person who steps inside the center. The security cameras, new after 9/11, also help. “We don’t keep anyone as a stranger,” he said.

Three police officers guarded the center to ensure that the evening concluded peacefully. Fresno police officer Brian Rogers said authorities had received no indication of a threat toward the center, but everyone is on high alert this weekend.

No threats have targeted Fresno or the Valley, Rogers said, but police are on the lookout for any stolen vehicles or chemicals that could be used for making bombs.

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