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Leaders of vandalized Columbus churches promote diversity, urge prayer, forgiveness

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COLUMBUS, Indiana — Leaders of the Columbus churches spray-painted with Muslim religious references said the acts were an aberration in a community that prides itself on diversity.

The graffiti was more acts of vandalism than a religious message, said the Rev. Clement Davis, a priest at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church.

"If this was someone trying to scare us into the inevitable rise of Islam, I am not impressed," Davis told The Republic (http://bit.ly/1w5WFhN ).

St. Bartholomew, Lakeview Church of Christ and East Columbus Christian Church were spray-painted Saturday night, Columbus police said.

Worshippers arrived Sunday morning to find the word "infidels" and Quran chapter and verse references in black paint on the outside of the church buildings.

"It's like a kick in the stomach when you see something like that on a Sunday morning when your focus is on higher things," Davis said.

An investigation is continuing into who damaged the buildings, but there have been no new developments, said Columbus Police Department spokesman Sgt. Matt Harris.

The incidents are being investigated as vandalism, rather than as hate crimes, because at this point there is no information pointing to anything other than vandalism, Harris said.

"(Investigators) are looking to see if there is any video available, and we are looking to speak to anyone who may have heard or seen something," Harris said. "The investigation is still ongoing, so I can't get into specifics. But, as always, tips can be made anonymously."

Marwan Wafa, IUPUC vice chancellor and dean, is Muslim and has made efforts to educate the community about his faith since arriving in 2009.

The use of the word "infidels" is an indicator that the person or group responsible is ignorant about the Muslim faith, Wafa said.

Muslims do not refer to Christians, Jews or Sabians as infidels, he said; rather, they are "ahla kitab," which means family.

The graffiti was particularly disturbing to St. Bartholomew's congregation, which had just welcomed a visiting pastor from a region of Nigeria that is beset by religious strife, Davis said.

The Rev. Joseph Ekpo was in Columbus to speak about Boko Haram, an Islamist movement in northeast Nigeria that has been identified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The group reportedly has killed thousands of people, including clerics, in the name of Islam, according to Ekpo's presentation.

"I think there is at least a temporal connection because this is very much in the news," Davis said.

Wafa said radical sects, such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State group, do not provide an accurate reflection of Islam.

"There are crazy people and fanatics in every tradition," Wafa said. "People want to live a peaceful life, raise their children, have a vacation, get jobs and get along. But there will be those that flourish and get their energy from conflict. That's why we need to stand together as a community."

Religious groups in Columbus are supportive of one another, and members of the Muslim community were among the first to reach out to him after the acts of vandalism, Davis said.

"Not everybody is happy with the inclusivity (in the community), and there are some self-appointed experts that are only too happy to at least give the impression of danger," Davis said. "I am convinced this has not come from the Islamic community in Columbus."

Islamic Society of Columbus President Zulkifly Yusuf said local Muslims were saddened and angered by the situation. He also said local mosque members don't believe it was a follower of Islam who did the spray-painting.

Islamic Society members are "very professional, respectful people," Yusuf said.

The society's building in downtown Columbus is a mosque, in a building that in previous years housed the Cathedral of Praise Church of God and the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Yusuf said the Quran passages left behind in the incident are used out of context.

For example, he said the verse, "We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve for what they have associated with Allah ...," is used as Allah's defense of Muslims who have been deeply wronged.

And on Lakeview Church of Christ, the vandal referenced Al-Baquarah 2:62, which translates as: "... any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord."

It is a verse that demonstrates the tolerance and mutual respect Islam has for other believers, Wafa said.

The Islamic Society of Columbus mosque at 2310 Chestnut St. was broken into in May, Yusuf said. Society members found profanity and some anti-Muslim comments written on a dry erase board in a classroom of the building, he said.

That incident was reported to police, but Yusef said society members wanted it to be treated low-key because of some concern that public comments could trigger additional incidents.

Harris confirmed an "information" police report was filed about the incident May 18. Police said there was no forced entry, and the profanity was found on the board in the society building. Police believe the incident happened the weekend of May 17 and 18.

Leaders of all of the vandalized churches encouraged prayer and forgiveness over anger or retribution.

"We need to pray for whoever did this," said Ron Bridgewater, pastor at East Columbus Christian Church. "It doesn't matter if it was kids trying to stir up fear or someone who is Muslim, we should pray for them because that's what Jesus would have done."

Dwayne Gandy, minister at Lakeview Church of Christ, said it would be a mistake to jump to any conclusions before the investigation is completed.

"We are just trying to be cautious, but fair and open-minded," Gandy said. "It's a good opportunity for us to come together and reaffirm our commitment to Christ and in him being the son of God."

Gandy also received a call from the Islamic Society of Columbus after the incidents.

"They said they strongly condemned what happened and deeply regretted that this took place and that none of their members took part in it," Gandy said.

Yusef emphasized that Muslims have enjoyed a solid relationship with Christian churches here for years.

Churches such as First United Methodist and others regularly have hosted Islamic Society members speaking about their beliefs during Sunday school class visits.

Columbus Area Multi Ethnic Organization (CAMEO) president Rocio Rodriguez declined to comment on the incident specifically.

She did say CAMEO is in favor of supporting and promoting ethnic and cultural diversity to enrich the lives of the residents and to make people feel welcome in the community.

Tim Orr, an ordained Christian minister and an IUPUC adjunct instructor in religious studies, counts several members of the Islamic Society among his friends. He said he is saddened by the incident.

"They are good guys," said Orr, who has proposed ideas in the past to strengthen understanding between Christians and Muslims. "I just would like to see them not be falsely represented."

The church incidents highlight the need for continuing dialogue on diversity within the community, said Tracy Souza, executive director of Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.

"I think it's a little hard to say with vandalism whether these are people looking to enter a dialogue, but to the extent that it is a way of saying we don't understand each other and we are fearful of each other," Souza said. "I think that says that we have a lot more to do."

The Heritage Fund conducted the first Welcoming Community study in 2004, which has been used locally to create plans for welcoming and accepting diversity in the community.

Souza said the efforts of members of the Muslim community to reach out to the leaders of the Christian community shows that contacts for communication are in place.

"One thing I'm grateful for is that the relationships have been built. When something like that happens, people know who to talk to and who to call," Souza said.

Christine Lemley of Interfaith Forum Columbus, which has been a staunch supporter of all faiths and also agnostics and atheists for nearly 15 years, has begun to organize a Shoulder to Shoulder event in response to the vandalism.

Orr also said he thought some sort of public, unified gathering could bring healing to the situation.

Shoulder to Shoulder events are a way for people of varied faiths to stand unified in peace and harmony, Lemley said.

"An event definitely should include the entire community," Lemley said. "I believe the community needs to come together and make a public stand against such disrespect."

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Staff writers Brian Blair and Jenny Elig contributed to this report.


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