Above Photo: Following an armed protest at the Islamic Center of Irving last month, a peace rally took place offering a much different message. (Vernon Bryant/Staff photographer)
The armed protesters who convened outside the Islamic Center of Irving in November are planning a repeat protest Saturday, this time at a mosque in Richardson. And it may not be the last staged by the rifle-toting Bureau on American Islamic Relations.
In response, a newly formed task force consisting of Dallas-area religious leaders has released a statement condemning the armed demonstrations.
“Today we are deeply concerned that the flourishing of the city of Dallas and all of its citizens is threatened by planned demonstrations at Dallas area mosques on December 12th,” says the statement sent by the Dallas Area Multi-Faith Task Force.
“Armed demonstrations at mosques or any houses of worship are a direct affront to the dignity and religious freedom of persons of faith and threaten the security and safety of all the citizens of Dallas. The current atmosphere of hate and fear of Muslims goes against the deepest teachings of our religions and the common humanity that we share,” the statement continues.
The task force was initiated by the Interfaith Council of Thanks-Giving Square, where the task force held its first formal meeting Thursday following two informal workshops. Its membership includes reverends, rabbis, imams and religious scholars. Among those who signed the statement are Pastor Joe Clifford of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Rev. Andy Stoker of First United Methodist Church of Dallas, Temple Shalom Rabbi Andrew Paley, Imam Shpendim Nadzaku of the Islamic Association of North Texas and Rev. Kraig E. Kelly of Highland Park Presbyterian Church.
“We urge our colleagues, congregation members, and friends to oppose the harassment of our fellow citizens who are Muslim,” says the statement. “It is our hope that all who read this message will act in their words and deeds, in every way appropriate to them personally or as religious communities, to act compassionately in response to this attack on our city and its citizens and engage in every opportunity to seek ways to work together for the common good.”
Robert Hunt, the Director of Global Theological Education at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, says the task force’s name may change and its membership should grow. Seventeen people signed the statement, but Hunt says more are expected to add their names as it begins to make the rounds.
“We’re at the beginning of this effort,” said Clifford, whose church is downtown. “I was in a room yesterday with four imams, and I can’t remember that ever happening. We’ve got to build a coalition to promote healing and understanding in our community.”
Hunt and others say the task force had its first informal meeting in October, before the first armed protest in Irving. The Southern Methodist University theology professor said the Interfaith Council simply wanted to assemble a group of religious leaders who could “engage positively in community-building in Dallas.”
They involved Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ office early on. Vana Hammond, Rawlings’ chief of community relations, has attended the meetings, and Rawlings said the group has his support.
“What I’ve learned as mayor is the faith-based community in this city is very powerful, and they reflect the opinion of the community,” he said. “I am pleased that leaders are tackling tough issues we have in the city.”
Rawlings said he called on many of the task force members to help him during the Ebola crisis last year, and many have been involved in his efforts to combat domestic violence. And his pastor, Clifford, happens to be one of the task force’s leaders.
“We also wanted to have a body of people who could respond to crises big and small involving the faith community,” said Hunt, who recently criticized First Baptist Dallas’ Rev. Robert Jeffress for calling Islam “a false religion … inspired by Satan.”
When Hunt says crisis, he means something like the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead in June. Clifford said “there’s not a formal organization of people who can be called together in response to offer support” or a statement.
“Hopefully, we can build this coalition and trust with each other,” Clifford said, “and also say that people marching with guns is not helpful to the current climate.”
Some of the task force members will be involved in the United Against Hate rally scheduled for Saturday that will march from Fair Park to the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. But protests weren’t the point, said Hunt — at least, not initially.
“By standing together, the faith community can help bring Dallas together in a positive way,” he said. “The armed protests came up in the middle of this, and we wanted to address them.”
Rabbi Paley of Temple Shalom said he can actually understand what’s behind the armed protests. It’s nothing more than fear — fear over what they see on television, fear of violence, fear of the other. But the rhetoric has “amped up considerably” in recent weeks, he said; so too threats of violence offered as nothing more than self-defense.
“I recognize and I know that many people are nervous and afraid,” said Paley. “And people getting together to protest and come together and share their feelings is important as well. But I feel like this is misplaced. Protesting a religion has very dangerous precedents, and the historic echo for the Jewish community is, in my opinion, very frightening. We’ve been victims of this kind of scare and fear. …
“But the antidote to fear isn’t more fear,” he said. “It’s light and hope, and that takes a willingness to acknowledge there is a fear. Directing it as innocent people trying to exercise their religion is not the way to combat that.”