The violent responses to the film “Innocence of Muslims” remind us that religious passions can be triggered by hate speech and provoke violent reactions. We have also seen offensive cartoons, inflammatory rhetoric and provocative actions cause similar reactions. The threat to burn the Quran in Florida and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s claim that “Muhammad was a terrorist” are among the parallel incidents. It seems that hate speech and attacks on religions will continue, but how can we limit or stop their occurrence?
In recent weeks, Albuquerque has been a focus of interfaith bullying, a matter that has flown under the radar for too long. It’s time to bring these issues into the light in order to stop them and limit their potential damage to the community. The problems started in the spring of 2012 when Friends of Sabeel-North America announced it would hold a conference in Albuquerque on Sept. 28-29. FOSNA is the U.S. and Canadian support organization for Sabeel Jerusalem, the voice of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. FOSNA has conducted conferences in major cities across the United States during the past 10 years.
Sadly, the proposed Albuquerque conference was denounced by the Jewish Federation of Albuquerque and one local rabbi in particular who spread false rumors that Sabeel was an anti-Semitic movement that advocated the destruction of Israel. Church officials were asked not to endorse the conference, lest they offend Jewish sensibilities. Curiously, several on the Albuquerque FOSNA committee are Jewish.
When the New Mexico Conference of Churches got a request to be a co-sponsor of the conference, the federation stepped up its pressure and the conference board voted to reject the request. A local rabbi contacted the Episcopal cathedral that had agreed to host the conference. The same bullying tactics were applied and the offer to host was rescinded.
Some clergy have come under similar pressure, including Monsignor Richard Olona, a respected Roman Catholic priest with a long history of interfaith relations in Albuquerque. In Olona’s case, he was familiar with Sabeel’s theological and moral positions, including its commitment to nonviolence, justice and peace for Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land, and an end to Israel’s occupation.
Olona understood the importance of an open discussion of the issues in the Holy Land and was also concerned that with Palestinian Christians suffering extensively in Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied territories, the churches should be more aware of these issues. He was not bullied by the federation’s rhetoric and upheld the need for free speech and the conference going forward. He described for me the multiple phone calls he received.
FOSNA calls for a cessation of the bullying that only brings division and denigration of persons. We offer an open debate on these emotionally charged but vitally important issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We invite the people of Albuquerque to come and hear speakers that include Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
We are grateful for the support of a growing list of Jews and rabbis who embrace such a learning environment. The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Council issued a letter of support for the Albuquerque conference, stating: “As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Sabeel. Canon Naim Ateek sees us as equal theological partners in the land we both love. We encourage the Jewish community to engage the Palestinian Christian faith community with an open heart and mind in order to encounter another version of faithfulness.”
We encourage the Albuquerque community to come and hear the speakers address these important issues and we encourage the faith communities of Albuquerque to work toward transcending bullying tactics which should not be allowed. Instead, let us work to transform difficult conversations and potentially divisive issues into vehicles that honor free speech.
Let’s stop the bullying now – everywhere.