Charles Wiley, coordinator for the Office of Theology and Worship, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  is deeply troubled. He's been reflecting theologically on the heated discussion around the proposed Islamic Center near ground zero, and now Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who planned to burn copies of the Qur'an on September 11, but backed away after believing he had received a promise the Mosque wouldn't be built there. "Consistently the Presbyterian Church has stood for respect for all of our neighbors," says Wiley.

"It is part of our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to treat with respect our neighbors of other faiths. I'm grateful for a recent statement by our Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) Executive Director Linda Valentine that speaks clearly to Presbyterian values in the midst of growing anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions and plans of some church leaders and members in our country."  

Dick Rettig standing in front of a panelled white wall.

Dick Rettig will be Christian Witness at proposed, but now “on hold” burning of Qur'an on 9/11.

Wiley is also thankful for the witness of Presbyterians in Florida. Alisun Donovan, associate executive presbyter of Presbytery of St. Augustine asked for "lots of prayer." Donovan, who lives in Gainesville where Jones planned to hold his now "suspended Qur'an burning," said she felt like "all of us were going to need it." She was encouraged when she heard from 74-year old Dick Rettig. A member of Memorial Presbyterian Church, he heard of Donovan's request, as he watched Jones set the world on edge. "What is to be done?" he wondered. Rettig, a political scientist, spent 12 years as a university professor and a quarter of century as a health policy analyst for the Rand Corporation and the Institute of Medicine.
"There are occasions where it is imperative to declare your faith, and not leave the field to the crazies," says Rettig, who returned to the Presbyterian faith in 1998 after a 25-year absence as self-described agnostic. "I wrote Donovan telling her that I am coming to Gainesville to stand in Christian witness against the madness represented by Jones and his followers."

Presbytery of St. Augustine Executive Presbyter Paul Hooker says Presbyterians will participate at an interfaith prayer service Friday night, September 10th at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville. "Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others will speak with a single united voice. The larger interfaith community is for peace and justice," says Hooker, who finds it "ironic" that such "intellectual violence" is being carried out "by a community whose name refers to dove, the symbol of the Prince of Peace. As a Christian and an American I am appalled and saddened by their proposed actions."

"The roots of this incident started out last year," says Donovan, "When Jones and followers put up signs right before the anniversary of September 11 that said 'Islam is of the devil.' But it didn't spread beyond our community. A number of Presbyterians protested quietly with signs of peace. Then Jones sent youth to high schools wearing T-shirts that said 'Islam is of the devil.' They were sent home."

Because this proposed act of burning copies of the Qur'an got picked up by the international news media "the time for silence has passed," says Dr. Dan Johnson of Trinity United Methodist Church. "There should be no doubt around the globe that the Christian church does not condone or support such an action." Rettig, for one, is taking seriously the call of the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) for "'Presbyterians to be leaders in establishing peaceful relationships between Christians and Muslims." "Sometimes it is necessary," he says, "to be active in the world on behalf of one's Christian beliefs."

In the coming months, through their work in interfaith relations, the Office of Theology and Worship will continue to help all Presbyterians build relationships with people of other faith. "Our focus increasingly is on how to communicate with the other," says Wiley. "One of the forms of witness is to engage all our neighbors with respect."