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Lutherans learn about Muslims

by Sara Hacking,

Staff Writer

Islam is said to be the fastest growing religion in the world, and St. John Lutheran Church in Wadena has launched a weekly study to educate its congregation about this increasingly influential faith.

"We want our members to be informed," said Ruth Clark, leader of the study. "To get good information as opposed to misinformation about Islam, so that we act rationally out of love to these people as opposed to acting out of fear."

A resolution was passed at the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod North District Conference last spring urging congregations to become aware of the basic beliefs of Muslims. That inspired Clark to begin the study, she said. Clark does not claim to be a teacher, but defines her role as a leader who passes along information she finds.

Jane Fryar's "The Truth about Islam" is the text for the study, held at 8 a.m. on Sundays. The goal of the Islam study is to educate church members about witnessing to Muslims, she said.

"One of the major reasons that we study this is to have a better understanding of our differences ... [and] how we can minister to them," Clark said.

The study has also provided an opportunity for the congregation to learn about the similarities between Islam and Christianity, she said.

A belief in the prophets of the early Old Testament such as Abraham and Moses is one of the major similarities, Clark said. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all identify with Abraham. However, Judaism and Christianity trace their roots to Abraham and Sarah's son Isaac, and Muslims identify with Abraham and Hagar's son Ishmael, she said.

Clark said additional similarities include an emphasis on a faith community and confessions of faith, which for Christians includes the Apostle's Creed and for Muslims is the Shahadah.

Both believe in sin, although Muslims do not believe in the idea of original sin, she said.

Even though there are many similarities, the differences between Christianity and Islam are major, she said. One of the most important differences is each religion's interpretation of heaven.

"Islam is a works-based belief in heaven by following the Quran and the prophet Muhammad," she said. "The Christian church embraces the free gift of heaven not by works, but by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is our savior."

Clark said Christians believe in a triune God consisting of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while Muslims believe in one creator God and no trinity.

"[Muslims] acknowledge Jesus, but only as a prophet," she said. "Jesus is the central figure in Christianity."

The differences between the religions are great, and Clark said understanding is the key.

People are sometimes concerned about Islam because of what they hear about some Muslim groups, she said. All ethnic and religious groups have factions that are more fanatical and they are the ones that get all of the attention. There have been radical movements in Christian history as well, Clark said. Most Muslims are not violent, but they are the silent majority.

Knowledge of Islam is very important even in a small town like Wadena, she said.

"We're part of a global society through the media," she said. "We need to be able to listen to news reports and filter out what is accurate and what may be exaggerated."

There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, Clark said. The Twin Cities, Rochester and Fargo all have growing Muslim communities.

"It may be in our neighborhood before we know it," she said.

Wadena resident Judy Condiff, a regular attendee of the study, agreed that it is a good time for Wadena to begin learning about Muslims. She shared a learning experience her daughter in southern Minnesota had with Islam. The lesson occurred when Condiff's granddaughter invited a Muslim girl to a birthday party during Ramadan, a Muslim holy month requiring fasting. Condiff's daughter did not know that a Muslim girl was invited to the party. The little Muslim girl had to inform her that she could not eat until sundown and she most certainly could not eat a hot dog. Condiff's daughter held dinner off until it was dark and found an alternative meal to the hot dogs, she said.

Other members of the study have also appreciated learning about Islam. George Deiss said the study has opened some people's eyes to how closely the religions mirror each other in some aspects.

Walter Goedel agreed that Islam is similar to Christianity in quite a few ways, although the differences are quite important.

Clark is pleased church members are interested in learning about the Muslim faith, she said. In addition to learning about Islam, they have learned more about Christianity.

"It's given us a greater appreciation for our faith and our own beliefs," she said. "If we really believe in our faith we need to reach people where they are. Jesus set the example. He went to where people were and ministered to them at their level."