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Synagogue hostage standoff reveals interfaith progress — as well as entrenched hate

Imam Omar Suleiman, Pastor Bob Roberts, Rabbi Andrew Payley and others at Good Shepherd Catholic Church on Jan. 15 near the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex. (Courtesy of Azhar Azeez)
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The imam, rabbi, pastor and priest had been in a small conference room in the building next door to Congregation Beth Israel for hours worrying and praying for their friend Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the other hostages inside the synagogue in Colleyville, Tex. Then around sunset came the most emotional moment thus far: the arrival of three Muslim women, friends of Cytron-Walker’s wife, bearing her favorite food — their samosas.

When Adena Cytron-Walker saw the trio, she collapsed into their arms.

“They hugged for the longest time, all crying on each other’s shoulders,” said Imam Omar Suleiman, a prominent Dallas-area Muslim leader who, like the others in the room Saturday night, have crossed paths with Cytron-Walker and built close bonds through interfaith, also called multifaith, work.

But the moment was complex, he said. It contained both close, loving bonds built on respect for religious differences, as well as the reality that religious tensions and anger are growing in an increasingly balkanized America.

“This is the beautiful stuff that doesn’t shine out of the ugly crap and hostility. At that moment, all of us cried,” Suleiman said. “The communities there, at the end of the day, are standing there together, with the absolute understanding that this was a lunatic. But you can’t disconnect this from the broader climate and what’s being said and suggested out there.”

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Suleiman had raced over to Beth Israel late Saturday morning to see whether he, as an imam, might help negotiators talk to the Muslim hostage-taker. Local rabbis he had told about his plans then scrambled to find a law enforcement contact to make sure Suleiman wasn’t targeted or somehow wrongly connected to what was unfolding in the synagogue.

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Investigators on Sunday were still trying to learn more about the captor, Malik Faisal Akram, and his motives. Identified by the FBI as a 44-year-old British citizen, Akram was heard on a live stream of the attack saying he wanted to free a Pakistani terrorist and had picked a synagogue because America “only cares about Jewish lives.” The 11-hour standoff ended with the hostages freed and Akram dead.

People being held hostage at a Colleyville, Tex., synagogue were freed and unharmed on Jan. 15. Authorities said the suspect died. (Video: Reuters)

“It’s a one-off, so in that sense, it’s good; it’s not someone in the community, it was an outsider who came to do something,” said Bob Roberts, a Dallas-area Baptist pastor in the conference room that night. His ministry, for decades, has focused on working with people of other faiths, Muslims in particular. “On the downside, we are so incredibly polarized right now. There is so much suspicion and hate and anger that for some people, this is another excuse for Islamophobia or antisemitism, just to stir the pot again.”

The standoff triggered different sentiments among faith leaders, but most shared a conclusion: This feels like a potentially dangerous moment for religious tension in America.

Some worried mostly about an anti-Muslim backlash, in particular among evangelicals, saying hostility has been growing since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was exacerbated under the Donald Trump presidency in certain places — including Texas. Mosques in the area regularly have armed white supremacists standing in front of their community centers, and Suleiman’s life has been threatened multiple times.

Others said that although investigators believe Akram was working alone, his choice of a synagogue and his comment about his motivation stem from a steady base of antisemitism that is being brushed off.

Abdullah Antepli, a Duke University professor of interfaith relations who was a longtime Muslim campus representative, wrote a Facebook post Sunday headlined “Houston, we have a problem!” It said Muslims should more actively oppose antisemitism.

“It’s as if there is no context in which these things are happening. We have every right to be pro-Palestinian; American Muslims have to make this a pillar of our faith life, but increasingly, this is becoming a zero-sum game, and subtly veiled antisemitism is creeping, hiding behind being pro-Palestine — and we have to stop this denial. Pay attention to the last 10 to 15 years,” he told The Washington Post.

Beth Israel on Sunday evening put out a note saying that “the time to heal our community has begun” and that a special service was scheduled for Monday night at a nearby church “to help all of us to begin to put this terrible event behind us and be thankful for a good result.” The service at 7 p.m. local time will be streamed on the synagogue’s Facebook Live page.

Concern about interfaith alliances and security, particularly at Muslim and Jewish buildings, was high Sunday. Interfaith groups across the country were scheduling meetings for the coming days to discuss whether the terrifying situation could be turned into a catalyst for solidarity between faith groups.

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Suleiman said Muslim groups in the Dallas area were all scrambling to add security. The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group for many major institutional Jewish groups, said in a statement that it would be rolling out a $126 million security campaign early in the next few weeks. The campaign aims to get every Jewish community in the country fully trained and equipped to protect itself from assaults. The group also urged Congress to double a $180 million government program that provides nonprofit organizations with grants to upgrade security.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten, a Dallas-area interfaith activist who works with Suleiman, Cytron-Walker and others, said her sense in Texas is that Muslims and Jews both need to look more closely at comments made by those with whom they have affinity when those comments make others feel delegitimized.

“I don’t see a robust engagement of Jews and Muslims. There is this desire to target a symbol versus looking at people for who they really are and what they actually believe,” she said, adding that she feels Muslims are “more beleaguered.”

“There are going to be some people who will never give up their firmly held conviction, but for a broad swath in the middle, they still want to have faith in their underlying belief that people aren’t out to get each other.”

The mission statement on Beth Israel’s website says that “we believe in interfaith inclusion and transforming Jewish isolation through engagement, participation, and volunteerism.”

Roberts said clergy are afraid to call out or make demands of their congregants on the topic of interfaith relations because of America’s super-polarized climate. They are afraid of upsetting someone or losing members, he said. On Sunday, he said he was “seeing it all. Evangelicals trashing Muslims, Jews trashing Palestinians, Muslims trashing Jews.”

“The way we’re relating to one another is not acceptable. It has to stop. It will only happen when people start speaking up,” Roberts said. “We don’t want to admit this, but we all have people on the fringes in our lives, and we’re not calling them out enough.”

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Ayesha Shafi, one of the women who came with samosas to the church Saturday night and who participates in a lot of interfaith work, said Sunday that she is taking an optimistic approach toward what happened. She said the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017 galvanized people against racism, and the Beth Israel standoff can serve a similar purpose.

On Sunday, clergy who were in the room Saturday night recalled a serene moment in the chaos when Roberts led a prayer for the tiny group. They sat in their chairs, eyes closed, heads down. Roberts prayed. “ ‘Individuals are trying to build walls and divide us,’ ” people remembered him saying. “ ‘But we are not going to budge. We are all together.’ ”

Some had their hands folded, others did not. Each was existing in their own way, listening to the prayer.