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'Respond to evil with good’: Muslim community raises money for victims of synagogue shooting

Samina Mohamedali, left, and her husband Kutub Ganiwalla, members of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, both of North Hills, prepare to place flowers on a memorial in front of the Tree of Life Congregation, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

A crowdfunding campaign organized by the Muslim American community has raised more than $150,000 for the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The shooting, which claimed the lives of 11 people Saturday during a morning service, “made me sick to my stomach,” said Tarek El-Messidi, a Muslim American speaker and activist who started the fundraising effort as soon as he heard about the attack. In the first six hours, the effort, called Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue, reached its initial goal of $25,000.

“When I saw the news, I thought, ‘This could have very well been at a mosque or a Hindu temple,’ ” he said. “We live in a time where so much bigoted rhetoric is being amplified.”

On the fundraising page, he wrote: “We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action.” He also quotes the Koran as saying, “Repel evil by that which is better.”

The fundraiser, which at some points was taking in about $2,000 per hour, is an effort to offset immediate short-term needs of the injured victims and grieving families. It also will go toward funeral expenses and medical bills. El-Messidi is partnering with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh to disburse the money.

“No amount of money will bring back their loved ones, but we do hope to lessen their burden in some way,” wrote El-Messidi.

El-Messidi, who started the effort on the Muslim crowdfunding site LaunchGood, said that about 70 percent of the people who are contributing to the campaign have Muslim-sounding names, and that the rest are people from other backgrounds who want to help the victims.

“It’s an interfaith effort,” said El-Messidi, a national Muslim leader in Knoxville, Tenn.

The fundraiser reaffirms his belief that an attack on people from one religion is an attack on people from all religions.

“In religion, we’re all worshiping a higher power, especially with our Jewish cousins,” El-Messidi said. “We share a lot theologically with the Jewish community, and a foundational teaching is you never harm religious spaces — regardless if it’s a mosque, a temple, church. One should never be worried about being harmed or killed in a place of worship.”

He said that in this angst-filled time, when the country seems more divided then ever, he still believes that responding to evil with good is effective.

“People have much more good than they have evil,” he said. “People are generally good-natured and peaceful. When people get to know each other, things like this don’t happen.”

El-Messidi, who is also the founder of Celebrate Mercy, an organization that promotes the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, has a history of rallying people to help those in need.

After the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis last year, an incident in which more than 150 headstones were toppled or damaged, he and another American Muslim activist started a fundraiser to help pay for repairs. It ultimately raised more than $160,000.

‘Every person deserves to rest in peace’: American Muslims raising money to repair vandalized Jewish cemetery

He also helped start a Muslim-led fundraiser for the victims of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015 that raised more than $215,000. In 2012, after the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, El-Messidi called on Muslims to write condolence letters to the Stevens family and presented 8,000 of them to Stevens’s sister that Thanksgiving.

He said he is grateful that people are donating to Tree of Life victims because he wants to help the survivors and family members feel less of a financial burden, and focus on healing and grieving. It particularly struck him that so many of the worshipers who were killed were elderly.

“It is even more heartbreaking to know that this happened to the more vulnerable members of the community,” he said. “It made me think of my own grandparents and what that would have been like for them. It’s sickening."