Muslim groups reach out amid uproar

It hopes to raise money to repair Christian churches damaged after a controversial speech by the pope.

Published September 20, 2006

Hoping to foster goodwill, a group of Tampa Bay Muslims is launching a nationwide effort to raise money to repair Christian churches in the Middle East that were damaged by Muslims after a controversial speech by Pope Benedict XVI.

Local Muslims, led by the Central Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, plan to announce their campaign this afternoon at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

They hope to fight the perception that Islam and its followers, particularly those in America, approve of violence and destruction. CAIR’s national office also has signed on, pledging to lobby its members around the country for donations.

Valrico neonatologist Mohamed Ghabour jumped at the chance to join the campaign, worried that American Muslims might suffer for the acts of others.

“It hurts me that an action like this is done by a minority, and a majority could be blamed for that action,” Ghabour said. “That action is not defensible. It is not justifiable.”

Ghabour declined to say how much he donated to the restoration effort, but he plans to encourage other Muslims to join him.

The effort comes as American Muslims express increasing angst about how the public perceives them in the face of a seemingly constant barrage of negative news and violent acts associated with the Islamic faith. U.S. Muslim civil rights groups, including CAIR, have long condemned terrorism and extremist behavior by Muslims.

But translating the message to the public has proved difficult. The group hopes its church restoration campaign will show that American Muslims do not condone such acts.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of CAIR’s local chapter. So far, the effort has raised about $5,000.

The current controversy began shortly after Sept. 12, when the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was “evil and inhuman,” particularly the prophet Mohammed’s command to spread the faith by the sword. The pope was speaking  at a German university about the relationship between faith and reason.

The reaction was swift in Muslim communities around the world. Protesters firebombed churches and opened fire on Christian churches in the West Bank and Gaza. Demonstrators burned the pope in effigy in Iraq. A nun in Somalia was shot and killed, though authorities have not confirmed that her death was a direct result of the religious protests.

Although local Muslims disagree with the pope’s statements — he has since apologized, saying the comments do not reflect his personal opinion — they believe the violence has been unjustified.

At the urging of Muslims such as Ghabour, CAIR reached out to the Diocese of St. Petersburg this week to inquire about making donations.

“A lot of this is symbolic in the sense that we want to lead by example and send a message to Muslims that it’s not appropriate to attack houses of worship out of emotion and anger,” Bedier said. “We’re not taking the blame because no one should be condemned for the sins of another person. But at the same time, we’re concerned about further friction.”

The Rev.  Robert Gibbons, the diocese’s vicar general, connected the group with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a New York papal agency that offers support to Christian churches in the Middle East. The Catholic group will help identify churches that could benefit from the donations.

The Rev. Guido Gockel, the Catholic group’s national secretary, said six churches were damaged in several cities, including Nablus, Gaza, Tubas and Tulkarem. Most of the churches were Greek Orthodox, but an Anglican church and a Greek Catholic church also sustained damage.

Gockel said the donation from the Islamic group was unusual. “But it’s a wonderful, wonderful surprise,” he said.
Gibbons, who also is the pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, invited members of CAIR to attend Mass on Sunday  to share their message of reconciliation.

“So many of my own people have spoken to me during the course of the last week or so as this controversy has raged, and it’s been on people’s minds,” said Gibbons, who is standing in for the head of the diocese, Bishop Robert N. Lynch, while Lynch is in Rome meeting with the pope.

“I think people will be very touched by this.”

Bedier hopes Lynch will share the group’s efforts with the pope. But he’s also preparing for criticism.

“For us, it’s going to be a concern that members or Muslims will see us as too apologetic or caving in,” Bedier said.

“That’s not the point. The point is that two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or 813-226-3405.