Obama speech reaction from ELCA

U.S. President Barack Obama "extended an invitation to a different way of living together in the world," said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in response to the president's long-awaited speech June 4 in Cairo, Egypt on U.S.-Muslim relations. Obama said he came to Cairo to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," based on mutual interest and respect.

In an interview with the ELCA News Service, Hanson said the speech may be "historic, not for its words but for how those words become foundational for us to live together in a world that has too often turned differences into grounds for domination rather than reason for reconciliation."

Hanson was appointed recently to a White House task force on interreligious dialogue and cooperation, through the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He is also president of the Lutheran World Federation, based in Geneva.

He said the content of Obama's speech affirms the ELCA's commitment to interfaith dialogue and is consistent with the church's "Peace Not Walls" campaign for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The president's remarks also relate to subjects Hanson discussed with Jordan's King Abdullah II in two meetings earlier this year: preserving Palestinian Christianity, the concept of Jerusalem as a "shared city" and the deepening of Muslim-Christian relations.

In his speech, Obama said he is a Christian but his father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. The president said he is familiar with Islam. "I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam where they appear," Obama said, adding that the same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," he said.

Obama addressed specific issues to Muslims in his remarks: violent extremism in all forms, the situation among Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world, responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development and opportunity.

"His (Obama's) tone was calm, and he exemplified what he called for -- calm, thoughtful, reasoned response to potentially explosive issues," Hanson said. The bishop noted the president's acknowledgement of the difficulty Palestinians -- including Palestinian Christians -- face because of the Israeli occupation. He said Obama challenged those who deny the Holocaust and called for Hamas to recognize Israel.

In response to Obama's speech, Hanson suggested Lutherans engage locally in interfaith dialogue and cooperative responses to human needs, learn more about people of other faiths, and hold the government accountable through advocacy for peace with justice in the Holy Land.

Hanson joined a diverse group of 50 religious leaders in a June 4 letter asking Obama to continue to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a top priority of his administration. The leaders also expressed serious concern over the "deteriorating situation in the Holy Land" and urged the Obama administration to make real and concrete progress in achieving a "just peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.


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