By ERIC CARPENTER
Orange County Register
IRVINE – With debate reaching a fever pitch over a planned mosque near Ground Zero and talk of a Florida church burning copies of the Islamic holy book on the anniversary of 9-11, an Irvine mega-church hopes to promote conversation encouraging understanding about the Muslim community.
Mariners Church, one of Orange County's largest churches with 7,500-plus members, is hosting an all-day seminar Saturday called "Bridges."
The plans have been greeted with a mixed reaction, with some Muslims worrying that it will spread misinformation about the Islamic faith.
The public event, to be led by Christian Faoud Masri, has a clear goal: To replace fear and misunderstanding of Muslims by others.
"Our goal at Mariners is to provide a contrast to the growing polarity and conflicts and tear down some of the walls of misunderstanding that lead to fear between communities," said Sophia Marsh, a Laguna Beach resident and three-year member of the Christian church.
Marsh, whose father is from Pakistan and who grew up in the Islamic faith, said the "Bridges" program has been in the works for months. The event is happening the same day a Quran-burning was planned by a minister at a Florida church; that protest was called off Thursday after extreme criticism.
Another church – The Irvine United Congregational Church – is hosting a "Quran-blessing" ceremony during its services at 8:45 and 10:45 a.m. Sunday. The Rev. Dr. Paul Tellström, the church's senior pastor, said in a statement: "In our progressive Christian view, Muslims are simply walking a different path than us up the same mountain in order to build a right relationship with God."
Organizers of both events say they hope to promote a spirit of love and a look for common ground.
"The population of Muslims in Orange County is around 170,000, and these are people looking to be part of the larger community," Marsh said. "We need to reach out so that a bridge can be built."
Hassam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles-area Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he has "mixed feelings" about the church events. He would prefer that Muslims themselves explain their views.
"Without hesitation, I support a church's right to preach their religion to whoever they like," he said. "It is good that we have this marketplace of ideas.
"But I do worry when it is based not fully on the truth or on negative stereotypes," he said.
Ayloush said he has not met Masri, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity and the leader of the "Bridges" program. But based on online videos he watched promoting the program, Ayloush said he is concerned that the message is that the world's 1.5 billion Muslims have yet to hear the word of Jesus and are waiting to be converted.
"If they are truly interested in promoting understanding and building bridges, why not invite (practicing) Muslims to explain their faith?"
Leaders of the "Bridges program said they are not excluding Muslims from the program, but are focused on non-Muslims to help them "get over their fears," Marsh said.
"This is just a first step for us, and we hope to have other events between the communities in the future," she added.
Masri, the leader of the program and a resident of Indiana, is a third-generation Christian from Lebanon and well-versed, he said, on establishing relationships between Christians and Muslims.
"We really aren't talking a lot about the religion of Islam, and we certainly aren't bashing it," Masri said. "Everybody is welcome, but our goal is to talk to Christians about how to show respect and begin those conversations with our Muslim friends."
Ayloush said he respects that both churches are trying to do something positive.
"I think what the (United Congregational) church is doing is the most truly Christian thing – to pray for the well-being of people, regardless of who they are.
"But I will take what both Irvine churches are doing any day over a pastor that is talking about burning the Quran and calling my religion evil," Ayloush said.
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- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html