Growing up, I was skeptical of other religions.
My father was a refugee from Palestine, my mother, also a refugee, from Syria. They met in the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon – a country deeply divided by religion.
Displaced first- and second-generation Muslims primarily populated my refugee camp. Maronite Christians ran the ruling class. Palestine, from where my father’s family had fled, had become the Jewish State of Israel.
My childhood and early adolescence were marked by devastation and war.
In 1982, at the age of 18, I was barely a young man. But I could tell you the difference between an incoming missile and an outgoing one.
I could tell you what pieces of shrapnel could be used for toys for children and which would explode in your hand.
I thought I had seen everything war and infighting could offer. Then the massacre happened.
My family had heard war was coming and fled to a nearby town to avoid it. I could not be dissuaded from staying.
I was a white helmet and knew the streets well. I thought I could help those injured and get them to safety using backroads of which invaders would not be aware.
I ended up witnessing the worst of humanity. I saw brutal murders of unarmed and completely defenseless neighbors.
People I had grown up with were slaughtered. Pregnant women and their children were butchered as their “Christian” slayers cried out for vengeance in the name of Jesus and Mary. I, too, cried out to Jesus and Mary as I hid in a metal chimney flu for days.
When the bloodshed stopped and I came out to see what was left, I saw crosses painted on doors in the blood of the slaughtered.
Ironically, when the Red Cross showed up to help with medical for the few survivors, their emergency vehicles also had this symbol of a red cross. Only this one provided hope.
Sermons at the mosques after the massacre were very hate-filled toward the Christians and the Jews, because Israeli forces had the power to stop the massacre, but instead waited in the hills and watched it happen.
But even though I had seen such inhumanity, such vile hate, I knew those messages from the pulpit were wrong.
I knew this because there had been a woman. A very kind and generous teacher named Ms. Rahma. She was deeply influential in my early childhood.
Before her, I had never known anyone to be so humble and selfless. She fed me when I was hungry, held me when I was traumatized and gave me sweets from a glass jar she kept in her classroom as a treat.
She was one of the most beautiful and merciful humans one could meet. And she was a Christian nun.
I believe God planted interfaith in me before I knew what that was. Now that I am an American imam, I know how important kindness across faiths is.
Had it not been for my positive experiences with Ms. Rahma, and the few other kind and compassionate Christians I have met, I too may have been filled with hate.
I could perhaps be living a life where I could look at another and think they were less than human.
Because of this, I have dedicated my life to showing and teaching others how important interfaith work is.
Interfaith work is not just about sharing theology. Interfaith work is about sharing humanity.
It’s about truly seeing each other and allowing our differences to be understood and accepted, even appreciated.
When I teach interfaith dialogue in my classes at Oklahoma City University, I always start with saying, “lend me your E.A.R.” (Educate. Attitude. Relationship.)
In order for us to find peace among religions, we must first educate. We must educate ourselves on what others believe. Find what gives them peace and hope.
We must have the right attitude. As we learn from one another, we must be open to truly listening without judgment.
Finally, we must have relationship. This is the most important.
It was because of the relationship I had with Ms. Rahma that I was unable to lump all Christians together and hate them, even after I had seen them slaughter my friends and neighbors.
Today, I have friends who are rabbis, pastors and priests, Buddhists, Hindus and Sheiks.
It is not in human nature to want to hurt one another. It is only when we are led to believe others are less than human that we are able to commit such atrocities against our neighbors.
Without interfaith relationships and dialogue, we cannot as a society hope to attain justice, peace and the common good of all.
In Oklahoma City, we have a very strong interfaith community.
Interfaith community came to stand in solidarity at Muslim Day at the Capitol when we had protestors; they came in solidarity with the Muslim community when anti-sharia legislation was being presented.
When people protested the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ participation in a Veterans Day parade, the interfaith community created a wall of love to protect us.
When I was denied the opportunity to be chaplain of the day in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Oklahoma Conference of Churches spontaneously went to Representative Chuck Strohm’s (R-Jenks) office to inquire the reason.
We’ve moved beyond coexistence to interfaith engagement in the public sphere.
Editor’s note: Enchassi’s experience in 1982 is recounted in “Mercy,” a short documentary from EthicsDaily.com, which can be viewed online here. Enchassi’s book, “Cloud Miles: A Remarkable Journey of Mercy, Peace and Purpose,” is available from Nurturing Faith Publishing.
This article is part of a series focused on interfaith engagement. The previous articles in the series are:
How Interfaith Partnerships Can Enrich Your Own Life | Rabbi Jack Moline
Amid Global Pandemic, Religious Pluralism Flourishes | Amanda Tyler