Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Fire brings interfaith cooperation

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS

Imam Rasul Faheem Seifullah, leader of the al-Baqi Islamic Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, says he has always considered building bridges to other religious groups as an important part of his ministry. When a fire destroyed his mosque in December 2004, those bridges became lifelines for his small congregation of Sunni Muslims.

Less than two weeks before the fire at the center the Muslim congregation played host to an interfaith Thanksgiving service that brought more than 70 people together, including Christians, Jews and Native Americans.

The destruction of the mosque generated an outpouring of sympathy and support from many religious groups in western Massachusetts, including donations of space, money and legal expertise from Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Baptists, Jews and other Muslims.

"I wouldn't even know all the denominations," Seifullah said. "It was across the board."

One offer, from Rabbi Robert Sternberg, was to hold a service among the artifacts in the Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center at the Jewish Community Center in Springfield.

Seifullah said he found nothing unnatural about a Muslim religious gathering in that space, which has displays featuring the narratives and histories of four Jewish families in a German town as a microcosm of the persecution and mass murder of Jews under the Nazis.

"I'll tell you what, every people on this planet has experienced a holocaust," Seifullah said. "The point is that this happened and it should never have to happen to anyone else."

Sternberg said he had extended the invitation as a natural response to the congregation's loss. There was great concern in the first days after the fire that it had been a hate crime, but the fire has since been determined to be the result of nonreligiously motivated youthful vandalism.

"They are good people, and we care about them," Sternberg said of the Sunni congregation.

The congregation at al-Baqi, part of the American Society of Muslims, also grew closer to the Nation of Islam mosque in Springfield after the fire and accepted an invitation to rent office space and to hold its weekly Friday services in its Mosque No.13, a converted beauty-supply store, until it can rebuild a permanent home. The move represents a renewed level of cooperation between the two Muslim groups, which share common roots in the American experience but had a rift in 1975.

Seifullah, 57, has experienced renewal in his personal religious history as well.

A native New Yorker, chemical engineer and Vietnam veteran, he was raised Roman Catholic. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1972 but drifted away from the Muslim community a few years later after the death of Elijah Muhammad, the movement's founder.

He rekindled his faith in the early 1990s, joined the mosque of al-Baqi, part of a Sunni offshoot led by Elijah Muhammad's son, and was named imam in 1998. Interfaith work has been part of his calling.

"There's more that we agree on than we disagree on, and while we are fighting to prove who is right, the rest of the world is going to hell," Seifullah said.

He prays five times a day and joins his congregants in ritual prostration as part of Friday services that mingle social commentary with fellowship and calls to serve the African-American community, of which they are part.

Seifullah at first saw his personal efforts to reach out to and learn about other religious groups in Springfield as a way to break down the insularity he perceived among African-American Muslims.

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