In a letter sent to hundreds of voters this month, Representative Virgil Goode, a Republican from Virginia, warned that the recent election of the first Muslim to Congress posed a serious threat to the nation's traditional values.
Goode was referring to Democratic Representative Keith Ellison and criminal defense lawyer who converted to Islam as a college student and was elected to the House in November. Ellison's plan to use the Koran during his private swearing-in ceremony in January had outraged some Virginia voters, prompting Goode to issue a written response to them, a spokesman for Goode said.
In his letter, which was dated Dec. 5, Goode said that Americans needed to "wake up" or else there would "likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."
"I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped," said Goode, who vowed to use the Bible when taking his own oath of office.
Goode declined on Wednesday to comment on his letter, which quickly stirred a furor among some congressional Democrats and Muslim-Americans, who accused him of bigotry and intolerance.
They noted that the Constitution specifically bars any religious screening of members of Congress and that the actual swearing in of those lawmakers occurs without any religious texts.
Ellison dismissed Goode's comments, saying they seemed ill-informed about his personal origins as well as about Constitutional protections of religious freedom.
"I'm not an immigrant," said Ellison, who traces his US ancestors back to 1742. "I'm an African-American."
Since the November election, Ellison said, he has received hostile phone calls and e-mail messages along with some death threats. But in an interview on Wednesday, he emphasized that members of Congress and ordinary citizens had been overwhelmingly supportive and said he was focusing on setting up his congressional office, getting phone lines hooked up and staff members hired, not on negative comments.
"I'm not a religious scholar, I'm a politician and I do what politicians do, which is hopefully pass legislation to help the nation," said Ellison, who said he planned to focus on secular issues like increasing the federal minimum wage and getting health insurance for the uninsured.
"I'm looking forward to making friends with Representative Goode, or at least getting to know him," said Ellison, speaking by telephone from Minneapolis. "I want to let him know that there's nothing to fear. The fact that there are many different faiths, many different colors and many different cultures in America is a great strength."
In Washington, Brendan Daly, a spokesman for the incoming House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, assailed Goode's letter as "offensive." Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, criticized what he described as Goode's "message of intolerance."
Democrat Representative Bill Pascrell urged Goode to reach out to Muslims in Virginia and learn "to dispel misconceptions instead of promoting them."
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