YOUNGSTOWN Panel discusses religious diversity

The Jewish, Muslim and Christian panelists agreed there is one God.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Hassane Dan-Karami converted from Islam to Christianity 27 years ago in his native Niger.
In the almost totally Islamic country, "My father told me a group decided to stone me because it was not acceptable," Dan-Karami recalled.
No rock was ever thrown, much less picked up.
The current head of the Evangelical Church of Niger said he didn't know why he wasn't stoned.
Dan-Karami said he believed it's God's plan for him to have been a Muslim who became a Christian. He added that his brother, Ousseini, also became a Christian.
Dan-Karami's story, like that of his friend and fellow countryman, Mahaman Alio, a lifelong Muslim, were part of a panel discussion Sunday at First Presbyterian Church.
Also taking part in the discussion were Arlene Brewster, a Jew who is married to the Rev. William Brewster, the retired pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Youngstown, and Dawud W. Abdullah, Iman of The Youngstown Islamic Center.
Their stories of faith and their relationships with other faiths indicated diversity and acceptance are widespread in the Mahoning Valley and in Niger.
What this is about
The two men from Niger are in the Valley as part of the Listening Project sponsored by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
Elsie Dursi is the director of the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches that is overseeing the events that began Friday and will end Tuesday. Dursi said the men from Niger will help prompt more local religious dialogue.
"Their job is to show us a path," Dursi said.
Alio said he will take back information on the United States to Niger, which he said is already very pro-American.
A few Islamic groups in Niger spoke out against the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks last year and were instantly disbanded by the government, Alio said.
Mrs. Brewster described how one of her brothers married a Protestant woman with one Jewish grandparent. That woman eventually became an ordained rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Mrs. Brewster described such religious journeys as, "religious soup out of Ripley's Believe It or Not!"
She said yet another brother married into a stricter form of Judaism.
"I've often said I'm the queen of mixed marriages," Mrs. Brewster said.
In Abdullah's case, he said he first went to a church that included both Baptists and Mennonites. His father, he noted, was a Jehovah's Witness. Abdullah converted to Islam after learning the story of Malcom X.
About prejudice
The panelists were divided on whether they face prejudice because of their faith. Alio and Dan-Karami reported Christians and Muslims were tolerant of each other in Niger.
Mrs. Brewster noted that "anti-Semitism is always there," and Abdullah said he had been subjected to subtle forms of racial bigotry.
"That has lessened in the last 15 to 20 years," he said.
But the panelists also noted that in the early days of Islam, Muslims were sheltered from persecution by Christians.
Abdullah disputed the notion of religious wars.
"Justice and piety go hand in hand," he said, adding that disagreements do not give license for religious violence.
"We have all received blessings from God and we are all to receive mercies from God," Abdullah said.
In response to a question from the audience, the panelists agreed that there is one God.
"I think there are hypocrites in every religion," said Mrs. Brewster. "I think there is God and universal truths and then religions that are the reflection of the people who are doing it."
Mrs. Brewster noted she wasn't asked to covert to Christianity when she married -- and wouldn't have married if she had been asked to convert.
Abdullah said that after he converted to Islam, he lived with an older relative who was a devoted Christian.
"She did not try to tell me I was wrong," Abdullah said. "That encouraged me to be more faithful."
Abdullah said faith was a matter of putting God first.
"Everything flows from that," he said.

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