Friday, September 28, 2007

Interfaith leaders call for day of fasting to end the war in Iraq

Here is the NCC press release and pictures from the religious leaders' press conference held on Wednesday, September 26th in Washington DC to call for an interfaith fast to call for an end to the war in Iraq. On October 8th in local communities around our nation people will fast during the day and come together in interfaith gatherings in the evening to break the fast. Please go to for details, to post information on a local event and to search for events in your area. On that page you will also find an organizing tool kit that includes bulletin inserts on fasting and organizing interfaith events. Please click the mail icon at the bottom of this post to email this post to a friend:

Washington, Sept. 26, 2007 – Several religious leaders representing tens of millions of faithful Americans stood today in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol calling religious communities of various traditions to a day of fasting and prayer to end the Iraq war.

"We must return to the ancient disciplines so that we will turn away from violence toward reverence," said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, Philadelphia, to reporters gathered in front of the United Methodist Church office building on Maryland Avenue.
Represented at the news conference were leaders of Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Baptist traditions. The Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches USA (NCC), and himself a Baptist, organized the news event.

Ancient practices were used at the news conference in the call to the nation. The ram's horn, or Jewish shofar, was sounded to "wake up" a nation. Ashes were placed on the leaders' foreheads as signs of repentance. A bell was tolled to call America's people of faith to join together on October 8 to fast from dawn to sunset, breaking the fast with their Muslim sisters and brothers.

"When you are fasting for Ramadan, you are enhancing your sense of compassion," said Dr. Sayeed Syeed from the Islamic Society of North America. "We will be asking mosques to open their doors to people of other faiths around the world on October 8 for prayer and dialogue.

"Dr. Syeed said the Islamic Center in nearby Sterling, Va., will open its doors to interfaith neighbors Oct. 8 to break the Ramadan fast together. Local religious groups are registering events at, a website managed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

"From beginning to end the biblical revelation is a revelation of peace," said the Rev. Stan Hastey from the Alliance of Baptists and an officer of the NCC's Governing Board.
Hastey said the NCC has opposed the war since the beginning and recommended the "withdrawal of troops in an orderly way." The Baptist leader also called the war "unjust and seemingly unending."

"Our nation is engaged in a horrendous war, one destructive of civilizations and divisive of communities. We have a responsibility to end our violence and to make concrete our compassion for the people of Iraq," said Sister Marge Clark, BVM, a member of Pax Christi USA.
"May our prayer and fasting bring us to live our responsibility for the precarious world which we have shaped," said Sister Clark, who is also a member of NETWORK, the women religious-led Roman Catholic Social Justice group.

In addition to events in localities members of the internet site Facebook are organizing virtual communities to observe the day of fasting and prayer. One of the organizers is Alex Winnette from the Unitarian Universalist Association."Young people are unfairly and negatively stereotyped. We believe the opposite is true. We are connecting to a global effort," said Winnette of the Facebook plans. "We will take the lessons of our ancestors as inspiration (in this fast)."

Congregations may find material about fasting and other bulletin inserts at as well as an organizing tool kit to hold an event. A list of sponsoring organizations and individuals endorsing the day of fast is also at that website.

NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252,

Photos by Leslie Tune

Thursday, September 06, 2007

September Issue of the NCC Interfaith Newsletter

The September 2007 issue of the NCC Interfaith Newsletter is now available. It features informatin on:

1. The Interfaith Fast on October 8th. See
2. Information about the Interfaith Relations Commission's initiatives:
a. Missiology of Jamestown Consultation
b. Restarting the Jewish Christian Dialogue Table
c. Planning for a Muslim Christian Dialogue Table
3. Article on Why IRD spent millions on mailing Epharaim Karsh's Islamic Imperialism to churches.
4. Two book reviews: Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith and Madeline Albright's Mighty and the Almighty

Read or download the newsletter here:

Monday, September 03, 2007

Honored by ISNA

The 44th Annual Convocation of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) meeting at Chicago over the Labor Day weekend, honored me with the Interfaith Unity Award at the Interfaith Unity reception on Sunday, September 2. As she presented the award, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA spoke of NCC's commitment to stand in partnership and solidarity with the Muslim community through some of the most difficult times of discrimination and prejudice they've faced, particularly since 9/11. Click here for the NCC press release

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, President of ISNA presenting the Interfaith Unity Award

The citation on the glass plaque reads:

"Islamic Society of North America presents Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, a fellow activist for peace, justice and reconciliation, a "Christian believer" as described in Qur'an (3:113) in recognition of his tireless contribution to advancing inter-religious dialogue and partnership, with our prayers for a continued demonstration of energy, understanding and commitment."

The keynote speaker at the event was the Hon. Ibrahim Rasool, Provincial Premier or Western Cape in South Africa. Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and I responded. Here are my remarks:

ISNA Unity Reception – September 2, 2007

My sisters and brothers of faith – greetings of peace, assalamu aleikum.

As I noted earlier in this convention, these are the same words my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ used to greet his disciples shortly after his resurrection – peace be upon you. You didn’t know it, did you? Lots of Christians don’t know it either. Indeed there is much that Christians and Muslims don’t know about each other. Fact is, we have a great deal more in common in our religious traditions than our differences. No, we don’t need to hide our differences. They are real and we must honestly deal with them. But we have more in common.

When I greet you as sisters and brothers of faith, I must tell you, there are some Christians who object. How can I speak of non-Christians as sisters and brothers, they ask. For one very simple reason, I say. Jesus called them sisters and brothers. Its in the book! See, Jesus was out teaching and preaching, forgiving and healing, restoring people to God and to relationships with each other. His mother and brothers got so worried about him that they came looking for him. Some of his people came to Jesus and said, Rabbi (he was a rabbi, you know!) your mother and brothers are looking for you. And Jesus said something very incredulous. Pointing the people around him, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.”

Whoever does the will of God? My reading of the Bible makes it clear that the will of God that he is talking about is the restoring of creation into right relationship. This what the early Jewish tradition established as the Jubilee, which Jesus said he came to proclaim. Everywhere you look in the Bible, its talking about restoring relationships: of human beings with God, human beings with each other and human beings with the world. You in this room, whatever your religious tradition, are working very hard to restore these relationships. You are doing the will of God. You are the ones upholding faith and serving humanity. You are my sisters and brothers.

There are others who try to do the very opposite. They try to create the sharpest of divisions among human beings. I want to draw your attention to two situations.

In April of this year, the far right wing advocacy organization Institute of Religion and Democracy, IRD sent a book, Islamic Imperialism, by Efraim Karsh as a gift to 100,000 churches around the country. They probably spent at least $ 1.7 million on that project. An anonymous donor wanted them to educate the churches, they said.

I read that book as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. Despite it being published by Yale University Press, the book has only a thin veneer of academic scholarship. Its purpose is not to educate but to persuade towards a right-wing ideology. It does not seek to restore relationships as the Bible teaches, but to destroy relationships by fear-mongering. It tries to portray Islam as unique among religions in supporting imperial ambitions. This distorted view of history dismisses Christian support of imperialism in one sentence. It is an unfortunate truth: all our religious traditions have legitimized imperialism and supported military adventures. In this Islam is not unique.

Those who promote fear mongering ideologies that strengthen divisions in human relationships, I am convinced, are not doing the will of God. Some of them bear the name Christian. But I must tell you, I have a hard time even thinking them as sisters and brothers. But you, who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and others who work so hard to create and restore human relationships, are doing the will of God. You are my sisters and brothers.

One more example. In February this year, I was a member of a Christian delegation that visited Iran. We met with many religious leaders, among them several senior Ayatollahs, both in Tehran and in the sacred city of Qom, and we met with president Ahmadinejad. We came away with three insights. 1. An assuarance that the nuclear program is only for energy purposes and not for weapons, since nuclear weapons are prohibited by fatwa by the supreme leader as being against Islamic teaching. 2. an affirmation that the only viable option in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political one, and not a military one. 3. an eagerness to engage the United States government and the people in dialogue. Following our return, we shared this information with key Senators and congresspersons as well as with officials at the State Department.

I believe that the time has come and indeed past, when religious leaders must take very seriously what we have begun to call Faith based diplomacy. These conflicts are too serious to be left to politicians. Many conflicts around the world today have some basis in religion. Many, perhaps most religious leaders today are skilled enough in the methods of dialogue that we can stay at the table, even when the times get tough. Religious leaders have three things going for them that many political leaders do not: 1. a moral high-ground, 2. a large following, 3. the ability to speak with divine authority.

This is particularly important today regarding Iran. Last week the State department refused to grant visas to four out of fourteen Iranian religious leaders who were due to arrive in a return delegation to the US next week, forcing the cancellation of that visit. No reason was given other than “security,” although I believe the reasons are “political.” If diplomatic avenues for avoiding conflict are important, not granting visas to religious and academic leaders shows unusual ineptitude. If avoiding conflict are not important then it makes all the more sense. I have begun to worry that the latter is the case for this reason.

At about the same time that the visas were being denied, our president, speaking to a American Legion National Convention in Reno, on August 28th, had this to say.

The other strain of radicalism in the Middle East is Shia extremism, supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran. Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism….
And Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.
We will do well to remember the rhetoric that came out of this White House prior to the attack on Iraq. Remember Colin Powell’s weapon’s laboratories in semi-trailor trucks, and Condaleeza Rice’s smoking gun “mushroom cloud!” And the president says, again, “We will confront this danger before it is too late.” These are fighting words, folks. Does anyone believe that Bush will leave office without a confrontation with Iran? It is time for people of faith to stand up together.

There are many ways to do that, but I don’t have the time to tell you. But here’s one opportunity. On October 8th, you my Muslim brothers and sisters will observe the most sacred night of Ramadan, the night of power. On that day you will not fast alone. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhist and people of other religious traditions have agreed to fast with you. Under the theme from Conquest to Community, from violence to reverence, and interfaith fast to end the war in Iraq, religious people in small villages and large cities will fast together, hold vigils, teach-ins and other public actions together and come together after sundown to have Iftar with you and break the fast. I want to ask that you help initiate these events in your community, that you open your mosques to interfaith iftar celebrations and welcome your guests. We will instruct them to leave you to your particular prayer that will go late in to the night. But it will be a good beginning for your own observance. Please go to for information.

Someone said the powers that be have a vested interest in keeping us divided. The more we work together, stand in solidarity together, serve humanity together, the stronger we will be to restore human beings to God, to each other and to creation. That’s God’s will. And those who do it together are indeed my sisters and brothers.

Praise be to God! Hamdulillah!