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Diverse Peace Group Holds Fast to Its Members' Faith in Humanity

March 23, 2003|Steve Lopez

They've been gathering every Friday morning a 7 o'clock since Sept. 11, 2001, trying to keep the world from unraveling.

Muslim and Jew, Hindu and Christian, Buddhist and Sufi, one of these and one of those. It's a Los Angeles crowd, for sure, and a nice idea, you'd have to agree. Love, peace, common ground -- who could be opposed?

The problem, unfortunately, is that human beings do not appear to be wired for harmony. And with the possible exception of race, nothing divides like religion.

But here's this flock of clergy and scattered spirits, calling itself the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice, meeting in church basements just past dawn. Up to 40 of them sit in a circle to hash out differences as a symbol of what's possible, even as the clash of civilizations proceeds.

When Muslim Americans feared reprisals after Sept. 11, this group stood outside Islamic centers and called for an end to hate crimes.

When the Palestinian-Israeli conflict flared, they ground out a peace agreement over the course of four weeks of argument and compromise, rabbi and Muslim working side by side, as if the fate of the Middle East rested in their hands.

For months, the group has been in full war-prevention mode, with strategy sessions, prayer vigils, protests on city streets and pleas (visit for the very kind of diplomacy that brought them together across cultural and religious borders.

I had dropped in on a meeting last month, when the group still held out hope for peaceful disarmament in Iraq, and I checked in again Friday, as the bombs were falling.

Was their faith finally shaken?

"We'll do the same thing we've been doing, much like you saw during the Vietnam war," said the Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, as we walked to a demonstration the group had organized outside a federal building in downtown Los Angeles.

One woman carried a sign that said:

"Support Our Troops. Bring Them Home." The problem, I suggested to Regas, is that the very faith that guides them also guides fanatics, and this war is likely to spawn a new army of them. All you've got to do is look at the recent arrests of suspected terrorists and their sponsors to wonder how religion can possibly be the solution when it's so often the problem.

For example, I learned that Palestinian suicide bombings are going for about $90,000 these days, according to court records in the arrest of a Florida professor who allegedly helped finance them.

In another recent arrest, a Yemeni "holy man" allegedly hosted mass celebrations for young men about to kill themselves and others. An associate of his, by the way, is the alleged Hamas founder who said at a 1994 Los Angeles fund-raiser:

"Finish off the Israelis. Kill them all!"

How can the efforts of a small group in Los Angeles begin to counter the growing corruption of religion by twisted minds, whether it's suicide bombers in the Middle East or Christian snipers taking out abortion doctors in the United States?

It won't be easy, Regas admits. But how can he and others not try?

"The history of religion is, how do you ... find common ground," he said as more than a hundred people carried protest signs, even as dozens of Pakistanis and Saudi Arabians waited in line to re-register with Immigration and Naturalization or face deportation.

"As a Muslim," said Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, a Palestinian-born member of the group, "I denounce suicide bombings."

He said he has a responsibility to both defend Islam and challenge its radical fringe. Abu-Shamsieh, who works for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said he's been speaking out at churches, synagogues and mosques.

On Friday, as the bombing intensified in Iraq, police helicopters circled over the demonstrators, as if this peaceful gathering of nuns and robed clergy was an act of subversion. One by one, the demonstrators led the group in prayer.

A Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Jew.

"Whenever bombs are dropped," said David Wheeler, former minister of First Baptist Church in Koreatown, "and human life is lost, we weep with one heart -- the heart of humanity."

A phalanx of police in riot gear -- it looked like an army of Darth Vaders -- marched toward two dozen members of the group, including clergy, who knelt in the middle of the street.

"I feel like I'm back in the West Bank," said Abu-Shamsieh.

The protesters were led away with hands bound, one of these and one of those, their resolve undiminished.

It would have been easy to dismiss their effort as an act of futility. But what's happening in Iraq won't end there. In the weeks, months and years to come, the impact of the war could reverberate around the world, spinning endless cycles of violence in God's name.

Nothing stands in the way but conscience.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at

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