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Catholic, Muslim students work jointly on community project

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May 11, 2011

By David Eck

ST. LAWRENCE DEANERY — The teenagers may have been weeding a garden, but they were also sowing seeds of understanding.

Karen Dabdoub, director of CAIR, Suaad Hansbahai of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, and Nicole Stephan, Mother of Mercy sophomore, load mulch for the trails. (CT photos by Colleen Kelley)

Eight sophomores from Mother of Mercy High School and three Muslim teens from the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati spent three hours April 30 working together at the Imago Earth Center, an urban nature center, in Price Hill. The service project with an interfaith twist gave the teens an opportunity to discover how much they have in common, despite their different faith traditions.   


“It’s good to be exposed to other religions and their lifestyles,” said Mercy student Stephanie Cline, a member of St. Bernard Parish in Taylor’s Creek.


As they worked the gardens and mulched trails through the woods, the students chatted about their schools, classes and popular books they have read. Mercy’s Anna Lynd, a parishioner at Our Lady of Visitation in Mack, and Abed Traboulsi, a student at Lakota West High School, bantered about science classes and the size difference of their high schools.


Such interaction helps break down barriers between Christians and Muslims, the students said.


“Hopefully it will give us more understanding of the other cultures,” said Bashir Emlemdi, a student at Lakota West High School. “We should do more interfaith events. When you are young you should work together more to get to know each other, so you don’t have that judgment of other faiths.”


Mercy student Maggie Walsh, a member of Our Lady of Visitation Parish, said interfaith events can help ease tension between Christians and Muslims.


“In our culture there are so many negative stereotypes,” she said. “Hopefully today we can show we don’t all judge them.”


Sakina Grome and Stephanie Cline work together at Imago Earth Center.

The event was co-sponsored by Mercy High School, the Cincinnati chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Cincinnati (CAIR) and the Institute for Youth Development and Excellence. The idea was to bring the Christian and Muslim teens together in light of the tension surrounding the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.


“We thought this would be a good service setting where they could get to know each other and develop friendships and dispel any myths or misconceptions,” said Mercy religion teacher Bob Bonnici. “It helps them realize that America has a lot of diversity.”


Service is a component of both faith traditions, so the students were able to participate in something they have in common, Bonnici said.


The project came at a time when the first Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., has been examining the civil rights of American Muslims and noting that discrimination and prejudice against the group echoes that which was encountered by many immigrant Catholics in the last century.


The focus of a March 29 hearing was to closely examine a reported backlash of attacks against American Muslims since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The hearing took place just weeks after Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chaired a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Islamic radicalization and terrorism in America.


Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, reported a “steady stream of violence and discrimination against Muslims” in the United States since 9/11 terrorist attacks.


He said there have been instances of religious intolerance in the workplace, harassment of school students, threats of violence, disputes over Mosques and other actions of bigotry in the past decade.


Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, who testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Catholics, who have been “the target of religious discrimination,” understand the need to protect the civil rights of Muslims.


The cardinal also stressed the importance of interfaith cooperation to gain religious freedoms across the board.


Similarly, an interfaith meeting of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders took place in Rome last October during the Synod of Bishops on the Middle East. Organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, the meeting at the Pontifical Gregorian University allowed all three monotheistic traditions to increase a call for interfaith cooperation for peace and hope.


As evidenced by local Catholic and Muslim students, the cooperation needs to begin early and in communities.


Karen Dabdoub, executive director of CAIR-Cincinnati, visited Mercy High School last fall to begin a dialogue with the school’s students and parents.


Following that visit, Bonnici and Dabdoub arranged the Imago project to give the younger students some interaction with their Muslim counterparts.


Grace Simpson, a sophomore at Mother of Mercy, pushes a wheelbarrow of mulch

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization, Dabdoub said. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.


“We have a chance to change what people think about other cultures instead of basing it on what’s been said in the past,” said Mercy student Nicole Stephan, a member of Our Lady of Visitation Parish. “We’re the generation that can unite different cultures.”

David Eck can be reached at [email protected].

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