COLLEGE PARK – Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism have changed the way many religious institutions are doing business, as leaders find themselves tightening security, sponsoring interfaith events and offering additional words of reflection to swelled congregations.
One profound change has been a surge in efforts to promote understanding between faiths, particularly the teachings and practice of Islam.
“I am so overwhelmed by the way people are interested . . . about Islam, and how receptive they are,” said Naseer Azeez, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg, which houses a mosque.
Azeez said that since Sept. 11, the center has hosted an open house that drew more than 300 people, including state and county officials, and a neighborhood picnic that drew more than 350 non-Muslims.
At the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, which also houses a mosque, president Sabir Rahman said they have had “a lot of people who want to come see how we worship.”
“We’ve also received a lot of letters and e-mails from different people in the community and they’ve all been very positive, all supporting us,” he said.
Muslims are not the only ones reaching out.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church “includes someone speaking to a better understanding of the Muslim faith” at almost every event, said Dean Snyder, the conference director of communication.
The Bethesda Presbyterian Church devoted an adult education course to a better understanding of Islam, exploring Islamic arts and inviting speakers from Muslim communities and the State Department, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Fritz Ritsch.
The Standing Committee and Bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland unanimously resolved on Sept. 27 to “decry any racial, ethnic, religious or cultural prejudice among God’s people” and encouraging “those who seek to erase any such prejudice.”
But some religious leaders are concerned that the efforts to reach out to the Muslim community may be excessive.
“I think there has been a tendency to reach over backwards and to extend the hand to the Muslim community, and I think we need to be a little more cautious and a little less naive,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of the Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.
“The same individuals whom we are reaching out to right now are some of the same individuals who have been supportive of these acts in the past,” he said, citing article such as an Oct. 16 Washington Post column on the conflicting loyalties of Muslim students in Potomac.
Others call such assertions unfair or unwarranted, and say interfaith conversations are overdue.
“This is one of the stark realities the attacks have illustrated to religious society — how little we know about each other,” Ritsch said.
Not all the changes since Sept. 11 have been positive: Many religious institutions now have new or stepped-up security.
“We’re more conscious of security,” said Rahman, “but we haven’t really made any changes.”
Rabbi Ronald Kopelman said his Nevey Synagogue in Bowie already had security precautions in place, including careful examination of mail, but they are being applied more strictly now.
“Before the 11th, if we forgot to set the (front door) alarm, well, maybe we forgot to set the alarm. Now, we don’t forget to set the alarm,” Kopelman said. “But the alarm had always been there.”
Weinblatt said his congregation has also changed its approach to security, and formed a task force to improve security at the synagogue.
“We’re keeping our doors locked on a regular basis and only letting individuals in when they identify themselves,” he said, adding that they are “also evaluating other things we need to do on a grander scale.”
As they struggle with security concerns, religious leaders are trying to balance that with the need for their congregants to move on.
“People come to churches looking for meaning, because they want to make sense of this, and they are confronting the fact that there are things they have no control over,” Ritsch said.
“The challenge is figuring out how we can continue to meet those needs,” he said. “We have to find ways to stay relevant to our congregants.”
The surge in religious attendance that followed the attacks has slowed, but leaders said they still find themselves addressing implications of Sept. 11 from the pulpit.
And the needs of religious leaders themselves have not gone unnoticed: The United Methodist conference has arranged for the Washington Pastoral Counseling Service and Interfaith Counseling Services to offer free counseling to pastors and community members.
The Rev. Rod Miller, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, said he’s not surprised by the continuing spiritual and emotional needs.
“The whole country has been going through a funeral process, with the loss of something significant in all of our lives,” he said. “I think faith can be very comforting and reassuring, as well as giving us some direction and hope.” — Distributed by Capital News Service.