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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Columnists

Otto: This Muslim’s interfaith message breaks down barriers

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It was not the audience she had hoped for, and she wasn’t sure whether it was the message or the messenger. Sadly, it was probably the latter.

The subject had to do with Muslims helping Jews during the Holocaust in World War II. Right away, in our polarized world, you can see where that one might not draw a crowd looking for unity or understanding. There doesn’t seem to be much of that going around.

To top it off, the speaker, Mehnaz Afridi, an assistant professor of religious studies and the director of Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education at Manhattan College, is not only a Muslim but a woman.

Whether that accounted for the absence of the invited Muslims at the interfaith audience this week at the Franciscan Center in Tampa is difficult to say, but that said as much about the world we live in as anything else.

Sister Annie Dougherty is the director of the center, which offers interfaith retreats and gatherings at its quiet grounds on the Hillsborough River. She is an old friend who has been involved in many community projects, including the Francis House center for families who are affected by HIV or AIDS and more recently as a chaplain for local law enforcement officers.

She had hoped to fill the place to overflowing.

Working with the Center for Catholic Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, which is headed by Abraham Peck, professor Afridi’s appearance was part of a series of interfaith engagements.

Afridi was born in Karachi, Pakistan. The family moved around, and the young girl experienced differing cultural sensitivities from London to Zurich to Dubai, where at one school students were required to cross the word “Israel’’ out of textbooks.

Moving to the United States into a heavily Jewish community, she felt discrimination herself, when the family began getting phone calls suggesting the “Arabs’’ move elsewhere. Later at Syracuse University, while working on graduate studies, she got involved in learning about the Holocaust, an event not studied in her culture.

Asking more and more questions, she interviewed Holocaust survivors, wrote about the subject and eventually became director of the Holocaust Center.

There were tears as she described listening to the stories of the survivors, several saying this was the first time they had spoken to a Muslim.

So here she was on a rainy evening in Tampa at a Catholic center, this Muslim woman talking to a small Christian and Jewish group about the need to reach out and learn the truth about history’s events.

In this setting it was not so much what was said as who was doing the talking. Afridi quoted from the tenets of her Muslim faith.

Her message was that the truth is the truth and only by talking to one another and not being afraid to look at all the facts are we going to survive as civilizations.

On a dreary night, her appearance was at least a break in the clouds and a sign that there is reason to hope.

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