FREDERICK, Md. – He has met with two U.S. presidents, lectured on Islam in scores of countries and appeared on global television.
So Imam Yahya Hendi could be forgiven for declining speaking engagements in the sticks.
But on successive days last month, Hendi drove from his Frederick home to ecumenical gatherings in Cumberland and Columbia, Pa., each at least 80 miles away, bringing the same message that has made him a leading Muslim proponent of interfaith dialogue in the U.S.
Hendi converses with everyone from small-town churchgoers to heads of state in his search for common ground.
“Everyone has room around the table,” Hendi said in a recent interview. “I would not imagine the American table without Jews – all forms of Judaism; without Christianity – all forms of Christianity; without Islam – all forms of Islam; without Buddhism and Hinduism and atheism. All people are on the table and no one should be left out.”
His welcoming attitude and moderate views on the role of Muslim women and Middle East politics are at odds with the extreme forms of Islam many Americans know from the daily violence of the Iraq war and from terrorist attacks around the world.
But Hendi, raised in the West Bank city of Nablus, said he sees in his adopted nation a truer expression of Islamic principles of tolerance, justice and equality than in many Middle Eastern countries.
The 42-year-old came to America for graduate school and has been a U.S. citizen for 15 years.
“I am proud to be an American, and I want to be used as a bridge between the East and West, between America and the Muslim world,” said Hendi, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Frederick.
He has been building that connection since at least since 1997, when Hendi, educated at the University of Jordan in Amman and Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, became chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He regards that job, which he still holds, as a form of military service.
“To offer my ministry and my support to our soldiers – for me, that’s priceless,” he said.
A decade ago, Georgetown University in Washington named Hendi its first Muslim chaplain. The Jesuit school said it was the first U.S. college to create such a position; others, including Rutgers, Brown, Tufts and New York University, have since appointed chaplains of their own.
Hendi said the Georgetown job fulfills his dream of ministering and teaching at the same institution. Along with offering spiritual and career guidance to several hundred Muslim students at the school, Hendi, together with a Roman Catholic priest and a rabbi, teaches a popular course called Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue.
The class, focusing on current events, teaches students “how you can debate issues about which you are passionate without necessarily becoming angry, without fighting, without screaming,” Hendi said.
Reaz Mehdi, a spokesman for the school’s Muslim Students Association, called Hendi “a huge advocate for us on campus.” He said Hendi’s celebrity helps bring Georgetown national recognition – and possibly more Muslim students.
Working in Washington has also put Hendi in touch with government leaders.
In 2000, President Clinton invited him to read from the Quran at a White House ceremony commemorating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month marked by daily dawn-to-dusk fasting. Hendi also gave a benediction at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was among Muslim leaders who met with President Bush to discuss American Muslim attitudes and reactions to the tragedy.
Hendi said he has met with Bush at least three times since then, including a 2003 discussion at the Afghan embassy shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“I spoke about how war in Iraq is not the solution politically or even religiously,” Hendi said. “I also spoke about how it does not enhance our national interest.”
Muqtedar Khan, an associate professor and director of Islamic studies at the University of Delaware, said Hendi “has been on the forefront of advancing Muslim-Jewish dialogue and Muslim-Christian dialogue. And I think he has been on the forefront of being an example of an enlightened and moderate Muslim in the United States.”
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington praised him as “a major fixture in the interfaith dialogue here in Washington.”
The U.S. State Department has recognized Hendi’s outreach abilities, enlisting him for several diplomatic missions to Muslim nations.
Back home in Frederick, about 45 miles from the nation’s capital, Hendi has created an annual Hanukkah-Hajj-Christmas celebration that last year drew 350 people to a conference center “to celebrate differences.” He’s aiming for 700 participants this year.
Hendi’s high profile has come with personal risks.
A married father of four, he said his work has made him a target for threats by Muslims and non-Muslims who condemn his interfaith outreach.
But he is determined to continue traveling wherever he can to spread his message.
“Remember that it does not matter how long you live,” Hendi said. “What matters is what you live for.”
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