Manti Christian and Muslim women taking part in the seemingly trivial activity of cooking classes together reached understandings that changed their world view in the process.

Krista Ramsey writes in her column at about their experiences.

Fatma Serim’s hands fly as she shapes and reshapes a glossy sheet of dough using an oklava, a small drumstick-shaped Turkish rolling pin.

Around her, Zeynepnur Kuran and Fatos Budiyar pull open kitchen drawers looking for spatulas and spoons to make tiny stuffed dumplings called manti.

The women, all Muslim émigrés, are as comfortable in the kitchen as if they were whipping up a family meal in their native Turkey. In fact they are 5,500 miles away, chopping and stirring in the basement of the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church. Around them a circle of Christian women make notes on their recipes and take turns trying the oklava.

The Turkish women are followers of a version of traditional Islam that emphasizes hizmet, service for the common good, and uses small, personal interactions to further interfaith understanding.

In a world torn apart by religious conflict, pounding walnuts into crumbs or shredding cabbage may seem like humble ways to promote unity. But the Christian and Muslim women alike say the cooking classes are building personal relationships and dispelling religious stereotypes.

“We could go a long way toward world peace if you could get a bunch of women together stuffing grape leaves,” says downtown resident Sandy Lingo. “We’re all working together and talking. We’re all alike – except that they’re better cooks.”

The classes grew out of a shared meal and conversation between the Muslim women and Mount Auburn pastor, the Rev. Susan Quinn Bryan. The women are members of the Niagara Foundation, a non-profit started by Midwestern Turkish-Americans to promote global fellowship. Now up to 25 women meet Saturday afternoons to cook and eat together.

For Deer Park resident Wanda Chandler, the chance to meet Muslims and ask frank questions about Islam has countered her earlier religious teachings that Muslims were evil.

“Last week we talked about why they wear their headwear. We talked during the meal that separation breeds fear,” she says. “I think this is what everybody needs. So many Christians are really fearful.

This dispels the fear.”

Jean Snyder of Florence has used her relationships with the Muslim women to counter biased comments by relatives.

“I can say, ‘That’s not my experience with Muslims,'” she says. “I can’t imagine someone not feeling welcome and warmed by these ladies. It seems impossible to think that anyone could think they don’t belong in the United States or shouldn’t practice their beliefs.”

Sema Duygu Deger of Mason says the more she meets with her Christian friends – whom the Muslim women have begun calling ablalar, or sisters – “sometimes it is hard to see any difference.”

While they are careful to respect each other’s beliefs, both the Muslim and Christian women openly follow their own practices. As they sit down to eat together, Snyder blesses the meal “in Jesus’ name.” And when it’s time for their daily prayers, the Muslims retreat to an upstairs room beside the sanctuary.

“There is no special place to pray to God,” says Mehriban Ulas of West Chester who, on her name tag, has written beside her Turkish name an English name that sounds somewhat similar – Mary.

Each cooking class is followed by a shared meal (“Sit Christian, Muslim, Christian, Muslim – like boy, girl, boy, girl,” says the Rev. Quinn Bryan) and discussion around a religious topic.

The women say they’re constantly astonished at the intersections of their faiths.

When the Mount Auburn women showed their guests a stained-glass window of the biblical parable of sowing seeds on different types of soil, the Muslim women quoted their own version in Turkish.

When a Muslim woman read from the Quran the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, “It could have been from Luke – I almost wept,” said the Rev. Kathy Barlow Westmoreland, pastor of St. John’s Westminster Union Church in Delhi Township.

Westmoreland says the classes are helping all the women practice their faith without being threatened by other faiths.

“One of the most common things said in scripture,” she says, “is ‘Don’t be afraid.’

Father Dave and Sheikh Mansour

I receive emails just about every day telling me how all Muslims are out to kill us!

It’s hard to know where to start in responding to these emails. Should I really try to respond line by line or should I simply point out that nobody speaks for ‘all Muslims’ any more than anybody speaks for all of ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are supposed to be). The simple solution is just to hit ‘delete’ of course, but I find it almost impossible to do that. Such emails are slurs against my sisters and brothers in humanity. How can I just ignore them?

At the same time though I’m realising that it doesn’t do much good to offer a logical argument in response, as these emails generally operate on a logic all of their own. Take the latest email I received:

A friend commends to me the testimoney of an army veteran – Lt. Colonel Allen West – who (according to this chain letter) is one of those rare individuals who has had the courage to stand up and tell the truth. West has served in Iraq and he knows the truth about Islam – that killing all non-Muslims is entirely the aim of the religion, and he’s happy to go on the record saying so.

You can see West’s 2-minute speech here if you’re motivated, and you can even find a campaign blog here if you want to write a letter of support to West, commending him for his courage in speaking out. But what is not addressed in the speech and what is not called into question by any of his supporters is why we should listen to this guy?

What makes this guy an expert on Islam such that we should take his word above the word of any number of highly qualified people – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – who claim that Islam does not tell its adherants to kill anybody?

Is it because he’s a veteran that he should be believed? I’m sure we could find any number of other veterans who would disagree with him. Indeed, his supporters themselves say that when West made his statement none of his veteran colleagues were saying anything of the sort. This is interpreted as cowardice on their part, of course, but it’s far more likely that they simply disagreed with him.

Is it his service in Iraq that makes him such an authority? Of course it doesn’t say how long he served in Iraq but his Yankee accent reminds us that it can only have been a small percentage of his life at best, and clearly he went there to fight the the Muslim enemy and not to do an objective study of Iraqi history. Certainly we would not normally consider such a man a credible authority on a religion he has never been a part of. So why is everyone so keen to listen to him now?

The answer is very simple. The reason Lt. Colonel Allen West is considered an authority on Islam is this: he’s the only guy saying what we want to hear!

Countless numbers of better qualified people will disagree with him. Any number of academics and scholars and theologians who have devoted their whole lives to the study of Islam stand ready to contradict him. All this means nothing! West is the guy we want to listen to. Why? Because he tells us what we wanted to hear – that all Muslims are violent bastards whose sole aim is the destruction of the Western world.

Mind you, the part of the Quran that West quotes to prove his statement – “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” – even if divorced from its historical context, can’t possibly be applied to Christians (or Jews), as such persons are not considered to be ‘idolaters’ in Islam but as mistaken monotheists. Anyone with a minimal knowledge of Islam would know this, but somehow that’s happily overlooked here.

Anyway, I’m sure there must be homicidal Muslim persons doing the same sort of thing somewhere, and fanning the flames from the other side – emailing all the people they know and quoting Psalm 137:9 – “Happy is he who takes their children and dashes them against the rocks” – and claiming that this is a Biblical command to all Christians and Jews to kill all Muslim children. And I’m sure there are any number of Muslim people who are just as glad to hear anti-Chrsitian rhetoric as we are to hear anti-Muslim rubbish. However you figure it, this is not the way to peace!

Hmmm … as I was about to post this I received another email from another friend, this time passing on to me the testimony of a Qantas Airlines pilot, Captain John Maniscalco, who likewise offers his words of wisdom, warning us about the dangers of Islam and the worldwide Muslim agenda.

I seem to remember that last time I heard from Captain Maniscalco he was supposed to be flying for American Airlines. Otherwise the message was the same. A little investigation of course shows that this email has been circulating for the best part of 10 years, that the author has taken on various identities, and that it is doubtful whether anyone by the name of Captain Maniscalco really has anything to do with its authorship.

And yet the email concludes with the all-caps exhortation: LET’S SATURATE THE FREE WORLD WITH THIS ONE!

That statement is depressing on so many levels!

Divide and Conquer The tactic of “Divide and Conquer” has been used for millennia as a diversion by those in power to keep different elements of a population under control while they are needlessly fighting each other. Mike Tudoreanu writes in The Daily Collegian about where this tactic has been successfully used in the past, and how we are watching it begin to fail as people wake up to the deception and create their own channels of dialogue and trust between their different communities.

From The Daily Collegian:

The hidden evils behind “divide and conquer”

By: Mike Tudoreanu | February 17, 2011

It’s an old tactic: Get your opponents to fight amongst themselves so that they will get weaker and you can pick them off one by one. Gaius Julius Caesar coined the phrase “divide et impera” – divide and conquer – to describe it. He used it in his war against the Gauls, but in the millennia since then it has also become a very common political strategy. Again and again, the ruling classes of various societies at various times have used this trick to keep the people in line, to make ordinary people fight each other both literally and figuratively and forget about the guys who are really in charge. It continues to be used today all over the world, sometimes with great success. But sometimes people figure out what’s going on, and refuse to be divided.

Capitalists and politicians love to use whatever excuse they can find to get different groups of workers to be suspicious, afraid and hostile to each other.

In the Middle East, and also increasingly in the West, they are currently trying to instill hatred between Christians and Muslims. They are helped in this task by the existence of real religious extremists who really are crazy. The media gives them excessive attention; they are made to look much more powerful than they actually are and books get published telling the adherents of one religion that everyone in the other group is secretly out to get them. Right-wing talk shows in the United States say that there is a secret Muslim plot to destroy America. Right-wing talk shows in Pakistan say that there is a secret Christian plot to destroy Pakistan. Some people fall for it, angry crowds protest against Muslims’ right to free speech in New York City or Christians’ right to free speech in Karachi; each side sees the other side’s anger as a confirmation that all the people in the other religion really are dangerous and scary. We end up with a self-reinforcing spiral of hate and the capitalists who started it all laugh all the way to the bank as they use the excuse of imminent danger to start profitable wars and cut social spending.

But, fortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Last December, there was a bomb attack on a Christian church in Egypt. One might expect that this would increase sectarian tensions and mistrust between Egypt’s Christians (who make up 10 percent of the population) and Muslims. But in fact, the opposite happened. Weeks later, at Christmas, thousands of Muslims flocked to Christian churches and formed protective human shields around them in an impressive display of solidarity. They said they were ready to die for their Christian neighbors in case the fundamentalists tried to stage another attack. “We either live together, or we die together” was the slogan. The fundamentalists were nowhere to be seen that night. They did not dare face the people. A month afterwards, as millions of Egyptians of all faiths took to the streets to bring down Hosni Mubarak, inter-religious solidarity was taken to new heights. Christians defended Muslims during their noon prayers in Tahrir Square when it looked like Mubarak might send his thugs against them at any moment. Muslims attended an open-air Christian service, also in Tahrir Square, a few days later. Signs and graffiti depicting a crescent and a cross were among the symbols of the revolution. The people of Egypt were not divided, and as a result they were not conquered.

For anybody interested in obtaining discussion material on interfaith relations, are offering this digital product for $9.95 through their online store.

Christians and Islam Discussion Guide

From the Sojourners website:
Perfect for small groups or individual study! Designed to spark discussion and thought about how to live out God’s call for justice in our world. Each session includes Sojourners articles, questions for discussion, and ideas for further study.

# 4 sessions, 16 articles, 57 pages.

About this guide: This discussion guide will lead users through a study of the important stories of shared history, theological similarities and differences, and aspirations for social justice that both Christians and Muslims share as communities of faith. Religious differences provide fertile ground for animosity and misunderstanding. Yet as Christians, we are called to work for truth and reconciliation.

Over the years, both Muslims and Christians have dealt with extremists who distort the character of true belief. Significant, intelligent dialogue and the development of authentic friendships across religious lines are key to deepening our mutual faith.

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In an incredible display of unity and courage, Muslims turned out in their thousands at the Coptic Christmas mass to shield Egypt’s threatened Coptic Christian community, who had recently been targeted by terrorists.

From Ahram Online:

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’ eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

The attack has rocked a nation that is no stranger to acts of terror, against all of Muslims, Copts and Jews. In January of last year, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving Church following mass. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in the Red Sea resorts of Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh claimed over 100 lives, and in the late 90’s, Islamic militants executed a series of bombings and massacres that left dozens dead.

This attack though comes after a series of more recent incidents that have left Egyptians feeling left out in the cold by a government meant to protect them.

Last summer, 28-year-old businessman Khaled Said was beaten to death by police, also in Alexandria, causing a local and international uproar. Around his death, there have been numerous other reports of police brutality, random arrests and torture.

Last year was also witness to a ruthless parliamentary election process in which the government’s security apparatus and thugs seemed to spiral out of control. The result, aside from injuries and deaths, was a sweeping win by the ruling party thanks to its own carefully-orchestrated campaign that included vote-rigging, corruption and widespread violence. The opposition was essentially annihilated. And just days before the elections, Copts – who make up 10 percent of the population – were once again the subject of persecution, when a government moratorium on construction of a Christian community centre resulted in clashes between police and protestors. Two people were left dead and over 100 were detained, facing sentences of up to life in jail.

The economic woes of a country that favours the rich have only exacerbated the frustration of a population of 80 million whose majority struggle each day to survive. Accounts of thefts, drugs, and violence have surged in recent years, and the chorus of voices of discontent has continued to grow.

The terror attack that struck the country on New Year’s eve is in many ways a final straw – a breaking point, not just for the Coptic community, but for Muslims as well, who too feel marginalized, oppressed, and overlooked by a government that fails to address their needs.

On this Coptic Christmas eve, the solidarity was not just one of religion, but of a desperate and collective plea for a better life and a government with accountability.

Jewish and Muslim groups in Detroit generously coordinated a Volunteer Day to take over various volunteer services so that Christian volunteers could be with their families over Christmas

Detroit Volunteers

From The Detroit News:

Jewish and Muslim volunteers fanned out across Metro Detroit on Friday to serve the community so Christians could spend time with their families preparing for Christmas.

The Volunteer Day is part of the Jewish Mitzvah Month and is coordinated with Muslim groups. Hundreds of people volunteer in social service projects throughout the region.

Volunteer Susan Sabbath and daughters Rachel, 16, and Madison, 13, helped prepare meals at the Detroit Rescue Mission for what was expected to be around 300 people. It’s something they’ve done for years.

“It’s nice to give back on a day where people can be at home to celebrate their holiday,” said Sabbath, who is Jewish.

Volunteers helped out by making meals at the Rescue Mission; serving meals at the Congregation Beth Shalom — South Oakland Shelter in Oak Park; delivering poinsettias to seniors in southwest Detroit through Bridging Communities Inc.; serving meals to residents of the Sunrise Senior Living of Troy; and taking inventory at the Active Faith pantry in South Lyon, as well helping out other groups in Wayne and Oakland counties. The Jewish Community Relations Council coordinated the event.

Traditionally, the volunteers come together on Christmas Day to aid the social service agencies for Mitzvah Day — the single largest day of Jewish volunteering. But this year, many volunteered on Friday instead.

The interfaith sites concluded by noon to accommodate Muslims’ Friday prayers, and other sites were scheduled to wrap up by 3 p.m. to avoid any conflict with the Jewish Sabbath.

Observant Jews don’t work from sundown Friday until sundown today.

About 200 Jewish and 50 Muslim volunteers joined the efforts Friday, said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“This is just going to continue to be a connection between communities,” he said.

Muslims have indicated they’ll fill in for many Jewish and Christian volunteers today.

Dr. Zahid Sheikh of Bloomfield Hills, who is Muslim, made a family outing of the volunteering. He and his wife, children, brother, sister-in-law and nephews helped sort books for a sale at Bookstock.

The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries offered some good cheer to one local family Friday when it gave a house to Christopher and Myia Coker and their five children.

“This is just amazing, I can’t believe it,” Christopher Coker, 29, said.

He h as worked for the group for 10 ye

ars and helped to fix up the house that was donated by a retiree. The Coker family was given the keys to the house by Chad Audi, the president and CEO of the charitable organization.

“I thought when I was working on it, ‘This is nice. Whoever gets this house will be truly blessed.’ I had no idea it was going to be us.”

To keep the house: The family must live in it for at least three years, maintain it and pay the taxes, and will be required to save for their children’s education.

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