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Mission Plays Host to a Day of Understanding : Religion: About 600 attend the Religious Diversity Faire to learn more about the world's wide spectrum of beliefs.

November 06, 1994|LESLIE BERKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — The Arabic chant calling Muslim followers to prayer on Saturday afternoon filled the courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded more than two centuries ago to spread the Christian faith to California's Indians.

A few hours earlier in the gym of the mission school, a rabbi and cantor in shawls presented a Sabbath service, reading from the Torah before a crowd that included Roman Catholic priests and the president of the Hare Krishna temple in Laguna Beach.

The occasion was Orange County's first Religious Diversity Faire, which attracted about 600 people interested in learning about the world's wide spectrum of religions. The daylong event was sponsored by the National Conference (formerly called the National Conference of Christians and Jews) and the Alliance for Spiritual Community.

The idea for the event, which included workshops as well as services, came from Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo and chairman of the interfaith clergy committee of the National Conference in Orange County.

Krause said his goal is to increase religious understanding and tolerance. "Everyplace needs it, but Orange County particularly because of its history of being a place where there have been intolerant acts and beliefs," he said. "For example, Orange County is the home base of the skinheads in the U.S."

Cooperation among religious faiths, he said, also can help the county's residents deal with such issues as street gangs and crime. "The more we are able to learn to get along with each other," he said, "the more effort we will put into solving problems."

Many of the fair's participants, such as Beth Malone, a second-grade teacher at San Juan Elementary School, said they appreciated the rare opportunity to learn about faiths that are predominant in other parts of the world.

"I'm curious and can't afford to travel to the countries that were the birthplaces of these faiths," Malone said, adding that she hoped to share what she learns with her students.

Organizers said the turnout was far larger than originally anticipated and that the greatest attendance was in workshops that discussed Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism.

Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education, talked about common misconceptions that many Americans have about Muslims and their Islamic faith. For instance, he said, Muslims usually are portrayed as Arabs, although he said only about 18% of the world's Muslims are of Arab background.

Mansuri said he decided to dedicate his efforts to changing the way Muslims are written about and pictured in American school textbooks after he discovered his daughter laughing over a textbook passage that said Muslims pray while rubbing their faces in the sand. "We don't have sand in our home," Mansuri said, drawing laughs from the audience.

After approaching textbook publishers, Mansuri said, he was able to negotiate some corrections. "My research indicates there is no deliberate attempt (by publishers) to malign a religion," he said. Rather, he said, the mistakes in school textbooks stem from ignorance.

In response to questions, Mansuri said that the civil rights violations in the Middle East perpetrated by national leaders stem from the area's political culture, not from the Islam religion.

"These people oppressing their own people are Muslims. But it goes against the grain of Islam," he said. "The Muslim masses are craving for what American democracy is all about."

Throughout the day, religious leaders and participants stressed the similarities, rather than differences, of their beliefs.

Msgr. Paul Martin, pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano, said the late Pope John XXIII had urged Catholics to "emphasize the things we agree on first. That is the basis of dialogue."

Swami Viprananda of the Vedanta Society, which has a monastery in Trabuco Canyon said, "One of our basic beliefs is all religions lead to God."

Participants said it was more than the sunny day that brought them to the mission grounds. "There is some kind of hunger, reaching, that is very broadly felt," said Frank E. Hotchkiss, an Episcopalian from Laguna Niguel, one of the few who knew the words to the songs at the Jewish service.

Hotchkiss, who with his wife, Kay, helped to found an Episcopalian church in their community, said he got interested in Hebrew music when he attended an interfaith service one Thanksgiving and now joins the choir at Krause's temple on High Holy Days.

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