WEST SPRINGFIELD — Before an overflow crowd at the Islamic Center of Western Massachusetts, speakers from different faiths and from law enforcement on Thursday night spoke in support of followers of the Islamic faith and against those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam.
More than 250 people packed the hall. Organizers continued to add seats throughout the program as more people entered the back of the hall.
The interfaith meeting was intended to bring people of different faiths together in the spirit of unity, and to push back against the wave of what was called “anti-Islamic rhetoric” in the media and even on the presidential stump by those who equate the religion with acts of Islamic extremists committing acts of terror.
West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt spoke briefly, as did school superintendent Michael Richard. Each said the town of West Springfield is committed to acceptance of people of all faiths and backgrounds.
Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan also was present but did not speak.
Zubair Kareem, president of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, said the numbers of the crowd in attendance and the diversity of faiths and faces was spoke of the hope and acceptance that many Muslims are looking for in American culture today.
For all the hateful rhetoric directed at the religion, Kareem said, “We have received many messages of kindness, support and hope.”
Rev. Martin Pion of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, also head of the Interfaith Council of Western Mass., said the level of anti-Islamic rhetoric that fills the airwaves makes this “a very critical time.”
“It is important for everyone to know of the many, many people, of many voices who support the Islamic community, across the United States and across the world,” he said. “As we observe what is happening, we recognize the need to do something.”
He read a statement from Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield: “To compromise the right of any one religion is to compromise the rights of all religions.”
John Robbins of the Boston chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s largest advocacy group for Muslims, said the organization has been pressed lately in its goal of pushing back against Islamic discrimination in the mass media.
“We’ve been very busy lately. Very busy,” he said.
“In the face of so much negativity, this outpouring of positivity is outstanding,” he said.
Rabbi Mark Shapiro of Sinai Temple spoke briefly about how Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all different, but all three have common roots that go back to the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis.
“Yes, we have differences, but differences are simply that,” he said. “Different is not meant to be frightening.”
Kevin O’Regan, the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Springfield, and Julia Cowley, of the FBI office in Boston, each told the crowd that the U.S. Justice Department is committed to protecting everyone equally, regardless of faith.
O’Regan said he first came in contact with the Islamic Center of Western Massachusetts in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He said he knew little of the Islamic faith, but came to know the people at the center.
The U.S. Attorney investigates and has prosecuted people “who act in the name of Islam,” he said.
He said those acts have been horrific on many levels, but he said because of his relationships with the people at the center, he has come to see that regardless of what terrorists claim, their actions do not represent Islam.
Cowley said the FBI is committed to investigating and prosecuting any civil rights violations, and that includes against Muslims. She said one of her reasons for attending was to let people see the face behind the phone number on her business card. “We will help you if you ask for it,” she said.