BY ANNE STANTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY-- The Grand Rapids mosque leader whose invitation to perform a Muslim call to prayer at a community choir event at an area Christian church was rescinded will come to Traverse City after all.
Sharif Sahibzada will perform the call to prayer as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Day event today at the State Theatre, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
He also will take part in an interfaith event on Feb. 16 with a Christian minister and Jewish rabbi.
First Congregational Church officials' decision to omit the Muslim prayer at a Veteran's Day event prompted heated local debate about patriotism, religious freedom and tolerance.
Church officials banned the Islamic prayer from a planned Nov. 11 performance of "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace," a piece that suggests religious harmony can avert war. They believed the Muslim prayer was inappropriate within the Christian setting. They also believed the prayer might be stressful for veterans attending the event.
Today, Sahibzada will help commemorate the civil rights leader.
"Dr. King was all about representation and equal rights for all people," said Jeff Haas, the event's artistic director. "So we have a real diverse program that includes an invocation by a rabbi, a call to prayer by Dr. Sahibzada, and a performance by one of the oldest African American spiritual chorales in the country."
Sahibzada said he is grateful for the opportunity to share peace and love with the Traverse City community.
"I'm excited the people are finally opening their minds and try to understand other perspectives of religion and want to live as a neighbor next to each other," Sahibzada said. "This is the way to live in this world as a human being."
That said, Sahibzada said he doesn't mind the earlier decision of the First Congregational Church to omit the call to prayer.
"It's their church and they have to think what's best for them," he said. "They have to decide. I don't mind it."
The Reverend Robin Long of the Suttons Bay Congregational Church said the invitation to Sahibzada for the interfaith program was not in response to the Traverse City church's decision to exclude the call to prayer.
"We wanted to extend the conversation that was begun around interfaith issues," she said.
Long said that she and Rabbi Chava Bahle have long wanted to broaden the theological scope of their interfaith programs with a Muslim voice. The First Congregational controversy opened a door.
After some research, she discovered Sahibzada had an "amazing" background. He is leader of the Islamic Center in West Michigan and holds degrees in Arabic, English, Islamic studies, Semitic studies, and oriental studies. He has also worked to increase interfaith understanding in the communities where he has lived — from Pakistan, to the United Kingdom and West Michigan.
The interfaith event is slated for Feb. 16, at the Suttons Bay Congregational Church and includes discussion, story-telling and music. A welcome reception begins at 6:15 p.m.; the program starts at 7 p.m. To reserve a seat, call 271-6036.