Gathering is in wake of City Council rejection of Islamic center.
Three churches in St. Anthony plan to hold an interfaith gathering Sunday between Christian and Muslim leaders in response to anti-Islamic comments made at a City Council meeting during which board members rejected a proposed Islamic center.
Members of Nativity Lutheran Church, Faith United Methodist Church and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church organized the event in an effort to show that not all citizens in the small bedroom community north of Minneapolis are against Muslims worshiping there.
"I thought it was unfortunate there weren't Christians speaking on behalf of the Muslim community, showing their support and solidarity," said Elsa Marty, the daughter of state Sen. John Marty and one of the organizers who attends Nativity Church, where the event will be held. "We want to make sure that's not the reality here, that we are hospitable to our neighbors of other faiths."
Last month, St. Anthony City Council members voted against plans to locate an Islamic center in the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters off Old Hwy. 8. They argued that the proposed Abu-Huraira Islamic Center was incompatible with the building's light industrial zoning.
During the meeting, a number of St. Anthony residents asked the council to deny the proposal and said the Muslim center was not welcome in the community. Some made disparaging remarks about the Muslim faith; at least one resident said Islam is "evil" and embraces violence.
Following the City Council's decision, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate allegations of anti-Muslim bias in the rejection of the proposed Islamic center.
In a statement released Tuesday, the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Minnesota said it's "looking into the matter" and hopes to "facilitate a resolution that's agreeable to both parties. If we can't, we'll look at other options."
Church organizers say their interfaith event will not focus on the City Council's actions, but will encourage Christians and Muslims to learn more about one another's faith. Two Christian and two Muslim leaders are scheduled to speak at the event, which starts at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. Attendees will also break up in smaller groups to talk about their beliefs.
The Rev. Leigh Brown, pastor at Faith United Methodist and a speaker at the event, says she's in talks now with Islamic center leaders about the group possibly using the church to hold worship services, if it needs the space.
"I think we're called to have understanding and respect for each other's faiths," Brown said. "I think we worship the same God, even though we have different paths to that God. They [Christianity, Judaism and Islam] have a common root. They have common ideas and interests, with regard to the values they stand for."
Supporters of the center have claimed the city discriminated against the Muslim group. They contend they worked out a deal earlier this year to get city approval to use the building, but then the group received a letter from the city stating the proposed project would be put on hold while planners studied whether the area's industrial zoning would be appropriate for the center's activities.
The congregation of about 200 wants to use the nearly 15,000-square-foot space in the building's basement for assembly and prayer. The rest of the building would be rented to existing tenants.
Sadik Warfa, a spokesman for Muslim leaders proposing the center, said the group is still interested in using the St. Anthony space and is considering a court challenge of the council's decision. Islamic center members plan to attend the interfaith event and are encouraged by the gesture, Warfa said.
"They have high hopes for that meeting," Warfa said. "We have every right to worship. It comes down to religious liberty. We are here to stay, we are part of the society. We are growing, and we need a center, too."
In the past decade, Muslim advocacy organization Islamic Resource Group (IRG) has given presentations about Islam to nearly 2,700 churches, businesses and other groups throughout Minnesota. There are about 150,000 Muslims in the state, with close to 40 mosques.
Zafar Siddiqui, president of IRG, said the group is also involved in the interfaith event, which he views as a positive step toward building understanding and tolerance.
"IRG in the past 10 years has reached out to over 100,000 Minnesotans in a face-to-face setting, and I can say with absolute confidence that in each of these 3,000-plus interactions, we have come away with a feeling of having built that human connection and friendship."
Rose French • 612-673-4352