Monday, November 13, 2017

Building Muslim-Christian bridges at St. Andrew's

Dema Kazkaz, of Waterloo, considers her work as a builder of bridges between religious cultures to be among her responsibilities as an observant Muslim. On Sunday afternoon, she drove two hours south to Chariton, accompanied by friend Hasina Waziri, to do just that.

"I am motivated out of my Muslim beliefs,” Kazkaz told The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in an interview earlier this fall. “I see myself as a seed-spreader," she said, "the seeds of love, understanding, tolerance and peace.”

Dema was in Chariton on Sunday at the invitation of the Rev. Fred Steinbach and the parish of St. Andrew. And St. Andrew's church was filled with a crowd from several churches and beyond who gathered to listen to Dema's presentation, engage in a lively question-and-answer session thereafter, then retire to the parish hall for refreshments.

Dema is a native of Hama, Syria, who lives in Waterloo with her husband, Dr. Muhammed Masri, an oncologist, and two children. She holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa and earned her master's degree with specialty in Muslim-Christian relations from the Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Conn. She currently serves as president of the Cedar Valley's Masjid Al-Noor Islamic Center.

Hasina, whose husband also is a physician, is a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, who came to the United States when she was 14, living in California before work brought the family to Iowa.

Both have experienced the anti-Muslim sentiments among some of their fellow U.S. citizens that followed extremist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, exacerbated by political rhetoric that accompanied the 2016 presidential campaign and has stretched beyond it.

"My faith has been hijacked by extremists," Dema said in regard to perceptions regarding it. Her current work involves healing some of the resulting wounds.


Kazkaz covered so much territory in a relatively short time that I couldn't even begin to report in any meaningful way upon it --- commencing with the history of Islam in what now is the United States (it had never occurred to me than an estimated 20-25 percent of the enslaved Africans brought into the Americas by slave-traders were Muslim).

I did know that several of those considered to be our founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, had studied the Qur'an but had forgotten that Jefferson attempted to learn Arabic in part so that he could read it in its own language. (Keith Ellison, of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, took his oath of office with his hand on Jefferson's Qur'an).

She covered some of the basics of her faith, including the Five Pillars (a statement of faith, daily prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca) and the six articles of faith (belief in one God, belief in angels, belief in the revealed Books --- The Torah of the Jews, the Psalms of David, the New Testament of the Christians and the Qur'an, belief in the prophets, belief in a day of judgement and belief in God's decree regarding the destiny of each individual).

But the take-away points may have been that there are countless expressions of Islam among the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, including more than 6 million in the United States, just as there are countless expressions of Christianity --- from extremist through benign to productive; that many of our western perceptions of Islam are based on cultural expressions that do not reflect its essence; and that the great majority of Muslims are people of good will doing their best to live their faith.

Dema Kazkaz, Hasina Waziri and Fred Steinbach before Sunday's presentation by Dema at St. Andrew's Church.

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