By Rick Plasterer
Officials from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held a press conference at noon on December 6 at the church to make statements and field questions regarding criticism and e-mail messages concerning the church hosting MPAC’s annual conference on December 15. Speakers included Salam al-Marayati, President of MPAC, Edwin J. Bacon, Senior Pastor of All Saints Church, and Maher Houthout, Senior Advisor to MPAC. Speakers generally denounced criticism of the church hosting a conference of a group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood as fear mongering. And they saw the occasion as an opportunity to claim the superiority of the church’s interfaith perspective and activities, and specifically to condemn criticism of the church hosting the conference offered by an IRD writer.
“What we hear too often” in Christian/Muslim relations is an effort to go back “to the rivalries of the Middle East,” it was claimed in one of the beginning statements. Through activities such as the conference, the church hoped to “find common ground amongst our religions,” as against the “politics of fear and the politics of hatred.” While the historic association between the Brotherhood and MPAC is undeniable, it was proposed that this should not be cause for concern. Senior MPAC advisor Maher Houthout said that he had been working with the Muslim Brotherhood sixty years ago against dictatorship, and it should not be regarded as an extremist organization. The Brotherhood is now the government of Egypt, he said.
While Susan Russell, a member of the clergy on staff at the church, had claimed in an article in the Huffington Post that threats had been received regarding the conference, this was denied in the press conference itself. “Its all been hate mail, we’ve not received any threats” it was conceded at the conference. Salam al-Marayati, MPAC President, did say that the conference “will have extra security,” is “taking all precautions,” and is working with law enforcement agencies. But basically the controversy of the conference was presented as a “good advertisement” for education in the “interfaith” perspective which is not shared by “certain organizations and certain persons.” Rev. Russell, stating her view that the controversy was not the result of “a few random and cranky Christians,” made clear that she regarded criticism of the conference by IRD as the principal cause of the controversy, and referred to IRD’s role as critic of mainline Protestantism and the Episcopal Church.
Given that no real threats have been made against the conference, it would seem doubtful that the All Saints Church would be highlighting criticism of its hosting the MPAC conference other than to present a posture in the conflict between traditional Christianity and liberal re-interpretations of the faith, and to further advance the theme that criticism of things deemed “progressive” is not proper. It would be hard to find a worldview more antithetical to the gospel of liberation that this part of the Episcopal Church fervently advances than the worldview of orthodox Islam. All of the features of “fundamentalist” Christianity that liberation theology loathes, its exclusivism consigning unbelievers to hell, its emphasis on God’s absolute monarchy and the duty of obedience (reflected in the very name of Islam), its hierarchical understanding of the relation between the sexes, between parents and children, and restriction of sexual activity to marriage (of particular interest in our day, strong opposition to homosexuality) are present in just as great strength in contemporary Islam. Indeed, they are present in greater strength, given that societies explicitly based on Christianity have passed into history, whereas Islam has a formal and growing role in most Middle Eastern societies.
And this influence in those societies continues to be seen in the treatment of minority religions in Muslim majority nations (different in degree, but far less than the equal treatment of religious belief known in the West), in the position of women, in punishments of sexual transgression (including death for adultery and sodomy where sharia holds full force), and in general submission to authority. Although the MPAC conference at the church can be presented as an advance for peace and understanding, it can just as reasonably be viewed as accommodating a worldview not compatible with either democracy or religious freedom. As has been seen in recent Middle Eastern upheavals, advances in the name of freedom often finally redound to its opposite.