Muslim leader travels, teaches religious tolerance
Maryland prayer leader on word wide mission
FREDERICK, Md. — He has met with two U.S. presidents, lectured on Islam in scores of countries and appeared on global television. So Imam Yahya Hendi could be forgiven for declining speaking engagements in the sticks.
But on successive days last month, Hendi drove from his Frederick home to ecumenical gatherings in Cumberland and Columbia, Pa., each at least 80 miles away, bringing the same message that has made him a leading Muslim proponent of interfaith dialogue in the U.S.
Hendi converses with everyone from small-town churchgoers to heads of state in his search for common ground.
“Everyone has room around the table,” Hendi said in a recent interview. “I would not imagine the American table without Jews — all forms of Judaism; without Christianity — all forms of Christianity; without Islam — all forms of Islam, without Buddhism and Hinduism and atheism. All people are on the table and no one should be left out.”
His welcoming attitude and moderate views on the role of Muslim women and Middle East politics are at odds with the puritanical or extreme forms of Islam many Americans know from the daily violence of the Iraq war and from terrorist attacks around the world.
But Hendi, raised in the West Bank city of Nablus, said he sees in his adopted nation a truer expression of Islamic principles of tolerance, justice and equality than in many Middle Eastern countries. Hendi, 42, came to America for graduate school and has been a U.S. citizen for 15 years.
“I am proud to be an American and I want to be used as a bridge between the East and West, between America and the Muslim world,” said Hendi, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Frederick.
He has been building that connection since at least since 1997, when Hendi, educated at the University of Jordan in Amman and Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, became chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He regards that job, which he still holds, as a form of military service.
“To offer my ministry and my support to our soldiers — for me, that’s priceless,” he said.
A decade ago, Georgetown University in Washington named Hendi its first Muslim chaplain. The Jesuit school said it was the first U.S. college to create such a position; others, including Rutgers, Brown, Tufts and New York University, have since appointed chaplains of their own.
Hendi said the Georgetown job fulfills his dream of ministering and teaching at the same institution. Along with offering spiritual and career guidance to several hundred Muslim students at the school, Hendi, together with a Roman Catholic priest and a rabbi, teaches a popular course called Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue.
The class, focusing on current events, teaches students “how you can debate issues about which you are passionate without necessarily becoming angry, without fighting, without screaming,” Hendi said.
Reaz Mehdi, a spokesman for the school’s Muslim Students Association, called Hendi “a huge advocate for us on campus.” He said Hendi’s celebrity helps bring Georgetown national recognition — and possibly more Muslim students.
Working in Washington has also put Hendi in touch with government leaders.