Muslim interfaith event honors educators

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Sunday night, as the sun disappeared below the horizon, over 150 attendees of this year's Humanity Day Interfaith Banquet Iftar broke fast together, celebrating another year of increased interfaith understanding and compassion.

Each year for more than a decade, Humanity Day, held at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland during the holy month of Ramadan (during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown), has honored those in the community who are "strengthening our bonds of humanity" through promoting religious and cultural respect, literacy and tolerance. While last year's event bestowed awards upon those who promoted justice and human rights, this year's program focuses on education, honoring teachers and professors.

The four recipients are the Rev. Thomas Hart, former chair and current instructor of religious studies and theology at Saint Vincent College in Unity; Fran Leap, associate professor of religious studies at Seton Hill University in Greensburg; Marinus Iwuchukwu, associate professor of theology at the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University and Julianne Slogick, teacher of world cultures and comparative religions at Mt. Lebanon High School.

The first three recipients are all university-level educators at Roman Catholic institutions, though Julie Webb, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center, said this was unintentional and an example of the event's commitment to honoring individuals from different faiths.

The program began with remarks from Sheikh Atef Mahgoub, the ICP's religious director, who spoke about the meaning of Ramadan. He emphasized that the holy month is a time to show compassion and mercy, and to reconnect with Allah. Moreover, he said it is a time to "wake up," ask difficult questions and think about others rather than ourselves.

"One of the crimes of the society that we live in is that it's a fear-based society," Mr. Mahgoub said. Ramadan, he said, is a time to confront and question those fears.

Valerie McDonald-Roberts, Mayor Bill Peduto's chief urban affairs officer, said the event was important because faith and religion are inevitably part of everyday life.

"It's separate, but it really isn't," Ms. McDonald-Roberts said. "We walk with faith."

Mr. Peduto arrived at the event later in the evening.

Alia Bilal, a freelance writer and performer and the night's keynote speaker, concluded the event with a discussion of the organization that she currently works for -- the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, based in Chicago. Before beginning her presentation, she noted that the audience was the most diverse that she had ever seen.

"This is pretty incredible, to have this kind of diversity [and] the passion that I see in front of me," she said.

Before the night's events began, Ms. Bilial said in an interview the United States is "a diverse conglomeration of humanity in one place." She said this presents residents with a "huge opportunity" to work with one another and showcase the work of individuals who often are not publicly discussed or mentioned. This event, she said, is a way of doing so.


Wesley Yiin: wyiin@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1723 or on Twitter @YiinYangYale.

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