Mus­lim leader trav­els, teaches re­li­gious tol­er­ance

Mary­land prayer leader on word wide mis­sion

The Covington News - - Religion - By David Dishneau

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.

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