For the first time in its history, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is holding its annual convention at a Christian church. But now the council's host, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., is facing vitriolic backlash.
The church has received over 25 hate emails and threats since Friday, Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for communications at All Saints, told The Huffington Post Wednesday. She blogged about the MPAC event for HuffPost Tuesday, and spoke to the negative reception the church has faced so far.
Russell sent text of some of these messages to The Huffington Post, including a quote from one comparing Islam to Nazism and calling Muslims "Body Snatchers." Another quote reads, “You are Consorting with the Enemy that is Killing Christians Worldwide.”
Russell writes of another, from South Carolina, that reads, “The problem is that by providing cover and legitimacy to an organization dedicated to overthrowing the Constitution, and substituting Sharia law therefore, you endanger my country and my grandsons' future."
All Saints Church, which is known for its progressive activism, is used to receiving criticism, usually from more conservative Christians. Still, the church’s reverend, Ed Bacon, said in his sermon Sunday that these were “some of the most vile, mean-spirited emails I’ve ever read in my life, talking about All Saints participating in terrorism,” as Russell recounted in her post.
The emails started coming in after the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a conservative Christian group, published a criticism of the convention venue Friday. “Yet again, the Islamists are taking advantage of naïve Christians with a desire to show off their tolerance,” the IRD wrote on its website.
Salam al-Marayati, president of MPAC, explained the idea behind reaching out to All Saints as a venue. “We wanted to provide an alternative model of positive Muslim-Christian relations … in light of all the negativity surrounding Christians making nasty films about the prophet and Egyptian courts threatening Christians,” al-Marayati told HuffPost Wednesday.
Instead of holding the convention at a convention center or hotel as in prior years, al-Marayati said he thought holding it at a Christian church would also “be a good way to tell Muslims to stop speaking to themselves and start speaking to the broader American public.”
Now, because of the threats, al-Marayati said he is working with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)and local police to make sure the event is safe. He said he expects about 1,000 attendees at the convention, which will take place on Dec. 15.
The IRD has accused MPAC of having terrorist connections and has been critical of the group’s defense of Palestinians in the Middle East.
“It would be helpful if MPAC would clearly and forthrightly declare that it has no support for Hamas and Hezbollah and that it affirms democracy and religious freedom for all people everywhere, including for Muslims who want to leave Islam,” Mark Tooley, president of IRD, told HuffPost Wednesday.
In a statement to HuffPost, al-Marayati confirmed that MPAC does not support Hamas and Hezbollah and does support democracy and religious freedom. “MPAC is a movement for peace, for justice and for understanding -- much like Jews and Christians and others are trying to promote values in our society,” he said.
MPAC has been a vocal critic of terrorism, and al-Marayati is on the DHS' Faith-Based Advisory Council. In November, MPAC and All Saints released a joint statement praising the cease fire in Israel and calling on both sides to refrain from violence.
Russell said that All Saints has decided to use the virulent reaction as a teachable moment “to expose the ugly underbelly of Islamophobia in this country.”
“The ugliness of the ignorance and the demonization of Islam is exactly what we are trying to combat precisely by having that convention here,” she said.
Matthew Ramsey, 20, who has been a member of All Saints’ congregation since he was 13, said that the hate emails sadden him but he is “thrilled” that the MPAC convention is taking place at his church. “I'm all for interfaith relations for I feel this helps create a better understanding of each other,” he said.
He chose All Saints as his church, he said, “because of their belief that everyone deserves love and respect no matter your political agenda, age, race, sexual orientation, religion or creed.”
UPDATE: Congressman Adam Schiff, who represents Pasadena, sent the following statement to HuffPost about the convention and hateful emails. “I commend All Saints Episcopal Church for hosting the Muslim Public Affairs Council convention as part of its efforts to build an interfaith understanding based on shared values," Schiff said. "I was deeply distressed to learn of the hateful and vitriolic messages that the church has received. Yet, these odious emails will only increase our determination to fight bigotry and increase understanding."