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Christian-Muslim group talks past religious divides

People love labels: black, white, Democrat, Republican, Protestant, Catholic, conservative, liberal, Jew, Christian, Muslim.

Labels tell who is similar to us and who is different.

Human conflict — from ancient wars to the terrorism that dominates today's headlines — has often resulted from people focusing on their differences, rather than their similarities.

For nearly a decade, a group of Central Kentuckians has met once a month to do just the opposite.

The Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group isn't complicated. Once a month, a diverse bunch of people meet in the basement of Hunter Presbyterian Church to talk about their beliefs, their cultures and what's important in their lives.

This month's meeting Saturday morning was bigger than usual. It was the group's second annual Thanksgiving potluck lunch, with turkey, dressing and the usual American trimmings — plus several Middle Eastern side dishes.

Among this month's group of 40 were eight refugees who recently moved here from Iraq. Kentucky Refugee Ministries is helping them resettle because their lives were in danger after years of helping American soldiers and journalists in Iraq.

Other participants ranged from Muslim graduate students from Turkey to Christian retirees, several of whom have lived and worked overseas.

The Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group was started in 2001, but it took on new urgency after Muslim radicals launched the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and America launched the war in Iraq in March 2003.

The mass shooting Nov. 5 at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly committed by an Army psychiatrist who is Muslim, has underscored the dialogue's importance.

"We were approached after 9/11 by a lot of Christians who wanted to know more about Islam," said Mohamed Nasser, a Muslim from East Africa who worked as an IBM electrical engineer before retirement. "Some people just wanted to know, 'Why are you doing all these nasty things?' But others wanted to understand more."

The main goal of the dialogue group is to "understand more." By talking, getting to know one another and developing friendships, participants hope to help transcend religious and cultural divides.

"Anyone can come, and anyone can speak," said the Rev. Philip Troutman, a Church of the Nazarene minister and former missionary in Africa who is working on a doctorate at Asbury Theological Seminary.

While the focus has been on dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Jews are welcome to attend, and some occasionally do. Dialogue leaders hope to encourage more Jewish participation, although they acknowledged that meeting on Saturdays — the Jewish Sabbath — isn't ideal.

"I've really benefitted from this time," said Omar El-Amin, a Muslim. "We all have different beliefs and understandings. But we are all human, and we are all in this boat together."

Shahied Rashid, the imam, or spiritual leader, of a Muslim congregation on Russell Cave Road called Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah, said many Americans don't realize that Islam is at least as diverse as Christianity, and that the vast majority of Muslims reject radical Islam and terrorism.

"Islam has good people, bad people and crazy people," Rashid said. "It's the same with any religion. This re-establishes for me that the most important identity for each person is human being."

Before lunch Saturday, participants sat around tables that formed a rectangle and talked about how they thought their belief in God was more important than adherence to a specific faith tradition.

Muslims talked of appreciating Christians' tolerance, and Christians said they admired Muslims' discipline and devotion to faith. Several remarked that people of all religions should be more active in helping societies find common ground.

"It's a shame we have to wait for a bombing or war to get us together," said Troutman, the Church of the Nazarene minister. "Whether we see eye-to-eye or not, we can come to know each other as people, and that can make all the difference."

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