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Two faiths share one message

Published September 25, 2006

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
A group of Muslim women listen as the Rev. Robert Gibbons reads from the Bible at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg on Sunday. The visit was led by the Central Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which recently began a fundraising effort to help repair Middle Eastern churches burned in the wake of a controversial speech given by Pope Benedict XVI.

ST. PETERSBURG - Unity. Selflessness. Peace.

They were common themes at Sunday morning Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church, where a group of Muslims were visiting in a gesture of reconciliation between the religious communities.

"God created us different so we could get to know each other better," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Central Florida.

His visit to the church came on the heels of news that a mosque in South Florida had come under gunfire Friday while people inside celebrated the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.

The rift between the faiths also has been widened by Muslim outrage over remarks by Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, who quoted words of a Byzantine emperor that characterized some of the teachings of the prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

In St. Petersburg, between hymns and the Eucharist, Bedier spoke to the congregation about the similarities between Islam and Christianity and how to bring about better relations.

"We need to look for ways to forge a bridge between Islam and Christianity," Bedier said. "As Muslims, we have to act more like Mohammed and as Christians you have to act more like Jesus."

Bedier's visit was a part of a larger campaign by his organization, and other American Muslim groups, to change the tide of associating violence with Islam.

Last week, the council announced that it would work through the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg to donate money for repairing churches in the Middle East damaged by violence following the Pope's remarks.

The Rev. Robert Gibbons, the diocese's vicar general and the pastor of St. Paul's, thought a message from Bedier would also be beneficial to his congregation.

On Sunday, Bedier and a handful of other Muslims from CAIR sat in the front row for Mass.

"Rather than keep my heart hardened I decided to open it up a little bit," Gibbons said to his congregation. "I felt you deserved to hear the word also."

After speaking to the group, Bedier presented Gibbons with a $5,000 check to go toward repairing the churches.

"The act - the violence against churches - it's un-Islamic," Bedier said. "Don't associate our religion, a religion of peace, with the acts of terrorism."

[Last modified September 25, 2006, 00:30:01]

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