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A civil confrontation greets visiting imams

Ayub Hina, 2, waited as his father (at right), Ali Hina, a Moroccan Muslim from Mansfield, talked with Fred Calm, who is Jewish and lives in Sharon. Both stayed after the meeting with the visiting imams to discuss ideas about their different religions.
Ayub Hina, 2, waited as his father (at right), Ali Hina, a Moroccan Muslim from Mansfield, talked with Fred Calm, who is Jewish and lives in Sharon. Both stayed after the meeting with the visiting imams to discuss ideas about their different religions. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Hunt)

SHARON -- It was the critical moment in an unprecedented encounter between Muslim leaders from the Middle East and the religiously diverse residents of this small suburb south of Boston.

After the introductions, Fred Calm, a middle-aged man wearing the head covering of an observant Jew, asked the eight imams from Jordan, Egypt, and Syria why he hears so many reports of vicious anti-Semitism in their countries.

In Egypt, he said, "a researcher recently concluded that Jews use the blood of Arab children to make matzo" for Passover, a revival of a centuries-old blood libel long used to stoke anti-Semitism in Europe.

Faces reddened and torsos shifted uneasily among the imams and the local residents packing the main reading room of the Sharon Public Library on Monday night. Awkward moments also occurred when discussion turned to the place of women in Muslim societies, and, earlier in the day, when the imams told Charlestown High School students how firmly Islam forbids sex out of wedlock. Last night at a Boston Public Library forum, women's rights were raised briefly, anti-Semitism was not mentioned, and more time was spent on the ethics of interest-free Islamic banking than anything else.

These were attempts at a peaceful, yet substantive conversation between Muslim religious leaders and ordinary American citizens. They neither dodged the burning issues between Islam and the West nor descended into shouting matches, fulfilling the hope of the US State Department funders and the local sponsors of the exchanges.

The imams' trip to the United States -- which also included stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington -- was financed by a $300,000 grant from the State Department to the nonprofit educational organization AMIDEAST or America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. The same grant also paid for a previous, less-public visit by a Mideast delegation last year and will cover a return trip of priests, rabbis, and American imams to the region.

During their weeklong stay in the Boston area that ends today, the eight imams visited mosques, churches, and educational institutions. Two also visited a synagogue, attending Friday evening services last week at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.

"In our countries, we really don't have synagogues," said Wa'el Arabiyat, assistant dean of the Islamic law faculty at the University of Jordan. "I wanted to know how they [Jews] worshiped. This was a very beneficial experience. I will convey it to others when I go back home."

In Sharon, Janet Penn, director of the citizens group Interfaith Action, which cosponsored the library event with the international affairs group WorldBoston, stepped into the breach, repeated Calm's questions in nonconfrontational language and reminded the audience that "we are not here to argue, but to ask questions and listen to the responses."

Confrontation receded. Conversation resumed. Mideast visitors and residents heard things they were uncomfortable with . Vast differences existed over women's standing. Sometimes it was hard to understand whether a visitor was criticizing the American occupation of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. But civility ruled.

"They said that the political conflict and occupation [in Israel and the territories] have a major role in the anti-Semitism that exists in the Middle East, and it was very difficult for me to hear that and not argue," Penn said. "But I am going to take it home and sit with it and think about it."

Some of the imams answered questions and met criticisms with comments about how Islam is the religion of peace and about how Muslims distinguish between the evils of the American government and the goodness of the American people. But there was also candor and humility.

"I will not try to give a flowery picture," said Mohamad Sulaiman, a preacher and director of graduate studies in Islam in Syria. "What is wrong is wrong, wherever it is. But the person who is blind does not need someone to tell him he is blind. He needs someone to take him by the hand.

"We do not say we are in paradise, or we are an ideal society," Sulaiman said. "We came here to take your hand and for you to take our hand."

Calm, the Sharon resident who asked the first critical question, was open to that approach.

"There is a need for real interfaith dialogue," Calm said. "It's fine to sit around the campfire singing Kumbaya, but we shouldn't ignore the meat of the issues, both what divides and what unites."

That sentiment was applauded by local Muslims, Jews, and Christians who stayed in the library talking long after the event ended.

Ali Hina, a Moroccan Muslim from Mansfield, introduced himself to Calm and praised the Jewish man's attitude.

"When a question hurts, that is good," Hina said, but added that believers must remember that they have common links through the patriarch Abraham and through monotheism.

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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