Survivors of massacres at a synagogue, a mosque and churches, speaking at a State Department conference on religious freedom Tuesday, urged the rejection of bigotry, racism and hatred and spoke of need to overcome the divisions they create.
The opening remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at times sounded like a call to Americans to end the polarizing demonization that can lead to violence.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 Jewish congregants Oct. 27, drew applause when he lauded immigration as an American strength and founding virtue.
“Too many of our citizens do not know the history of their families, the hardships they faced as they immigrated to a new land,” he said, “and blindly turn from those who were not just like them, creating further hardship through their bigotry and refusal to get to know their neighbors. It is only through the most basic of human communication, through compassion, and empathy and one-on-one relationships, that the artificial fences that we create to exclude anyone not like us will dissolve to be replaced with the basic goodness that exists in humanity.”
Myers cited the 11 murders at Tree of Life, nine worshippers killed at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 and six Sikhs killed in Wisconsin in 2012.
“We need to tone down our language,” said Myers, who has refused to use the word “hate” since the synagogue shooting.
The timing of the three-day event is striking, as the White House is enmeshed in controversy over Trump’s racist language telling four minority congresswomen they should “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came” and accusing them of hating America. In response to criticism of his remarks, Trump tweeted Tuesday: “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”
The location of the meeting is also arresting. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has championed the cause of religious freedom and created the conference last year to address it, is a staunch defender of Trump.
Sam Brownback, the ambassador at large for religious freedom, said that 80% of the world’s population lives in places where there are restrictions, often state-imposed, on the practice of faith.
“It is past time to bring down these religious restrictions so that the Iron Curtain of religious persecution can come down for one and all, and it comes down now,” he said.
Abraham Cooper, an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Center who attended the conference, said he shares Myers’ concern over the way political opponents “weaponize language and demonize the other.”
“His comments about immigrants reflects the frustration of millions of Americans, including me, over the nasty political fights that show no sight of abating as people continue to suffer and our democracy is weakened,” he said.
Survivors of shootings at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, and at Easter Sunday services at churches in three cities in Sri Lanka in April, said the tragedies have helped the country come together as people of different faiths reached out to console one another.
“Love attracts us and pulls us together,” said Farid Ahmed, whose wife, Husna, was killed in the Christchurch attack as she tried to push her husband’s wheelchair to the exit. Ahmed later forgave the gunman.
“On the other hand, the hate destroys us,” he said. “The one who has hate is like a volcano. It is filled with hatred, rage and fury, and it is burning within, and also it is trying to burn the outside.”
Yamini Ravindran, a Christian who worked to counter Muslims being stigmatized after the church bombings in Sri Lanka, said the nation has been traumatized by the violence, which killed more than 250 people. She said there has been a subsequent increase in hate speech and disinformation, particularly on social media, targeting Muslims. But the survivors are on the path to recovery, she said.
“I can assure you of that,” she said, “because they have no hate in their hearts.”
The State Department’s conference runs through Thursday, when foreign ministers and other senior officials from more than 100 countries are scheduled to discuss what governments can do to promote religious freedom. Pompeo initiated the first conference on the topic last year, and the second gathering is more than twice as large.