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9-11 In Focus: Interfaith Dialogue After 9-11

Symbols of three faiths in a window in Jerusalem. Credit: iStockPhoto align=left

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted a wave of interest in interfaith dialogue across the country, including in Charlotte. In some quarters, this trend continues today. But not everyone cares to join the conversation. WFAE's Mark Rumsey examines Charlotte's interfaith relations, in the post-9/11 world. Six days after radical Islamic terrorists hijacked four airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, President George W. Bush went to the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. In a short address aimed at preventing a violent backlash against Muslims in the U.S., the president said "The face of terror is not the true [face] of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about; Islam is peace". As the nation absorbed the shock of the attacks, some leaders of Charlotte's faith community seized the tragic opportunity to encourage more dialogue aimed at improving inter-faith relations. "The 9-11 tragedy brought fear in one sector", says Maria Hanlin, Executive Director of the interfaith group Mecklenburg Ministries. "But in so many others it brought a renewed commitment to interfaith work, to building bridges of trust across the chasms of faith, and ethnic and economic differences". Soon after the terrorist attacks, some Charlotte clergy members found themselves participating in what seemed like a never-ending stream of interfaith forums and exchanges that continue today. Since 2006, Mecklenburg Ministries has seen its membership nearly double. The group now has 95 member congregations and faith groups. But as the frequency of Charlotte's interfaith dialogue has increased, a trend has emerged. "I notice sometimes when we have these dialogues, it seems like we're preaching to the choir", says Imam Khalil Akbar of Masjid Ash-Shaheed, a North Charlotte mosque. "There's a need to reach outside of the choir". Imam Akbar's comment highlights a major challenge for advocates of interfaith dialogue. It seems the same people always show up. Rabbi Judy Schindler of Charlotte's Temple Beth-el says a lot of churches, mosques and some temples are not at the table of interfaith dialogue. "They're very insular and they're focused inward", says Rabbi Schindler. "But how do we draw them out"? Maria Hanlin says that in some cases, it's people's religious perspective that keeps them away. Those with a more conservative "purpose and mission", Hanlin says, may feel that interfaith work is "outside the mission of what they're called to do". While some faith leaders emphasize the common ground between religions, others tend to focus on what they see as key differences. "I do think there are distinct doctrinal differences", says Mark Harris, Senior Pastor of Charlotte's First Baptist Church. "And I think the doctrinal differences have got to be exposed; they've got to be discussed". Rev. Harris makes no apology for defending his Christian belief that "Jesus is the only way to heaven". Harris continues, "you're not gonna get there through Mohammed, you're not gonna get there through Buddha, you're not gonna get there through any other new age format or religion". This language may cause some to cringe, but Harris says his belief is not mean-spirited or lacking in respect. "To me that's just a statement of fact of a doctrine of our faith". Rabbi Judy Schindler agrees that interfaith discussions should not simply be "feel good" programs that only focus on the common beliefs among religions. But, says Rabbi Schindler, "we need to model what it means to listen and hear and learn and accept that many of us have different truths". It's a balancing act that's certain to challenge Charlotte's faith communities for many more years of co-existence in the post 9/11 world. Note: Houses of worship across the Charlotte area will mark the 9/11 anniversary this weekend, including an interfaith program Sunday at 7:00p.m. at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 3400 Beatties Ford Road. Details here.