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Friday, December 14, 2001, updated at 12:45AM

Forum sets the record straight on religions

By Jeff Burlew

Christians, Jews and Muslims joined together Thursday night for a "Straight Talk" forum and town hall meeting designed to bring about religious reconciliation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The meeting, held at City Hall as part of Mayor Scott Maddox's initiative on race relations, attracted about 100 people. The panel discussion also included representatives from the Buddhist and Bahai religions.

Sharon Ofuani, director of the city's Department of Equity and Workforce Development, helped organize the event after receiving encouragement from several local religious leaders. The goal, she said, was to look for commonalities among people of different faiths.

"It's a way of getting to know one another, a way of eliminating the fears and the myths, and just breaking down the barriers," Ofuani said. "People really want to talk across racial lines and religious lines. They just need someone to encourage them to do so."

April Katine, a local middle school teacher, said she came to the meeting in part to gain a deeper understanding of Islam and impart that knowledge to others.

"I've heard a lot of kids talking about being resentful of Muslims," Katine said. "And I just want to get more understanding so I can then help the young people to understand. Just because they're Muslim doesn't mean they're at fault for September 11."

For some panelists, the discussion was a chance to introduce their beliefs to folks who might not have been familiar with them. For others, the meeting provided an opportunity to dispel religious stereotypes.

Ahmed Asker, a Florida A&M University professor who was born in Egypt, read verses from the Quran because, he said, "The best straight talk comes from God, not from man's mouth."

Asker told audience members that Islam is a religion of peace, love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. He said Muslims who take part in mandatory prayers five times a day utter the Islamic word for "peace" 28 times daily.

"It is obvious, therefore, that those among the Muslims who committed this horrible crime of September 11 are like McVeigh and the other militant hate groups," Asker said. "Consequently, evil and wickedness cannot be attributes of their religion" but of those who committed the attacks.

Rabbi Jackie Wexler of Congregation Shomrei Torah read from a portion of a sermon she delivered during the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, which this year fell about a week after the terrorist attacks.

Wexler urged people to unite in their hopes of a free and peaceful world.

"Wherever there is hatred, replace it with love," Wexler said. "Wherever there is division, replace it with community. Wherever there is destruction, replace it with newfound hope."

©Copyright 2001, Tallahassee Democrat

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