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ELIZABETH, N.J. — Plans to attract thousands of Muslims to Capitol Hill on Friday (Sept. 25) for prayer have drawn anxiety, praise, enthusiasm and criticism, but they’ve also made unlikely allies of the New Jersey mosque where the idea was born and a conservative Christian group.
Organizers at the Dar-Ul-Islam mosque would seem to have little in common with the Washington-based Christian Defense Fund. Yet on Tuesday, mosque members attended a special reception hosted by the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, the Defense Fund’s leader, in Washington.
“I know I will lose donors and supporters,” Mahoney said. “I’ve already had phone calls from people, Christians, saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’ This is what we have to work on, breaking stereotypes.”
Mahoney, a vocal anti-abortion rights advocate who also has pressed for the display of religious messages and symbols in public places, said he believes all religious groups should be allowed to pray in public, and that Christian-Muslim dialogue is important.
“A lot of the moral and social values that Christians embrace are embraced strongly by the Islamic community, particularly those enumerated in the Ten Commandments,” Mahoney said.
“One of our core principles, especially post-9/11, is to build a bridge and a relationship between the Christian community and the Islamic community,” he said. “There is a vast difference between the overwhelming majority of people who practice Islam and jihadists.”
Friday’s prayer event, which is titled “Islam on Capitol Hill,”
spurred a sense of camaraderie in Mahoney, a New Jersey native, that led him to call Hassen Abdellah, the main organizer of the event.
Abdellah said he was grateful for the unexpected solidarity.
“Though our religious principles may be different, what brings us together is our common humanity,” he said.
“America is a great country, and those of us who are Muslims… realize the enormous privileges we have in terms of free exercise of religion and religious accommodation.”
Still, the prospect of up to 50,000 Muslims praying on Capitol Hill has lit up segments of the blogosphere with criticism of the event, of Abdellah, and of a featured Quran reciter. In addition, prominent Muslim bloggers who are not associated with the event have charged planners with showing blindness to sensibilities of non-Muslims wary of Islam.
Abdellah, who says political posters and placards are not welcome at the prayer gathering, said he has received numerous negative calls from non-Muslims.
“I’ve had a chance, I think, to persuade most of them,” he said, “because when we have dialogue and they understand it’s not an anti-American mission, they appear to have a change of heart.”
Some online critics have noted that Abdellah, an attorney, has represented defendants in cases related to terrorism, including Mahmoud Abouhalima, who was sentenced to 240 years in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack.
Abdellah made no apologies for his legal work.
“One of the things our Constitution provides is that people have a right to an attorney,” he said, “and what attorneys take an oath to do is to defend people … that other people, under most circumstances, would have no type of relationship with.”
The event’s Web site notes that a Quran reciter, Sheikh Ahmed Dewidar of the Islamic Center in Mid-Manhattan, has stood next to President Bush at Ground Zero in Manhattan and condemned the 9/11 attacks. But critics point to statements he made in Arabic, translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute, that Zionists control the U.S. media, economy, and government.
Asked about that, Abdellah said Dewidar will not be voicing any political views at the event and that scrutiny of the statements is thus unwarranted: “All he’s going to do,” he said, “is recite the Quran.”
While most of the criticism has come from non-Muslims, two prominent Muslim bloggers also have voiced doubt.
Sheila Musaji, founder of the journal “The American Muslim,” worries the gathering was “not a well thought-out program.” She’s concerned that the date is too close to 9/11, and that some terminology on the event Web site, such as the motto “Our time has come,” will be misunderstood by non-Muslims.
“It simply isn’t the right time or the right place for such an event,” she wrote. “That being said, the organizers have every right to hold such an event, and it is very positive that they say that there will be no placards or political speeches.”
Abdellah said the use of “Our time has come” is not meant in a threatening way.
“It’s time for us to stand up and talk about the freedom and the privileges we have, which are free exercise of religion and to change the impression that others put out there that as a Muslim we are oppressed in America,” he said. “We’re not oppressed. So it’s our time.
Our time has come. We need to come forward and take our religion back.”
By JEFF DIAMANT
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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