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11-24-2007, 12:23 PM
Hyde Park Baptist says it didn't realize Muslims were leading annual Thanksgiving event.

By Eileen Flynn

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, the city's largest interfaith organization, announced Thursday that its annual Thanksgiving celebration Sunday had to be moved because Hyde Park Baptist Church objected to non-Christians worshipping on its property.

The group learned Wednesday that the rental space at the church-owned Quarries property in North Austin was no longer available because Hyde Park leaders had discovered that non-Christians, Muslims in particular, would be practicing their faith there. The event, now in its 23rd year, invites Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Bahais and others to worship together.

Organizers had booked the gymnasium at the Quarries in July and made the interfaith aspect clear to Quarries staff at that time, said Simone Talma Flowers, Interreligious Ministries' interim director.

Several Muslim groups were acting as this year's hosts for the event. Kent Jennings, associate pastor of administration at Hyde Park, released a statement Thursday that said church leaders received a postcard about the service Monday and only then realized that it "was not a Christian oriented event."

The postcard also "promised space for Muslim Maghrib prayer and revealed that the event was co-hosted by the Central Texas Muslimaat, the Forum of Muslims for Unity, and the Institute of Interfaith Dialog," according to Hyde Park's statement.

"Although individuals from all faiths are welcome to worship with us at Hyde Park Baptist Church, the church cannot provide space for the practice of these non-Christian religions on church property," the statement said. "Hyde Park Baptist Church hopes that the AAIM and the community of faith will understand and be tolerant of our church's beliefs that have resulted in this decision."

Central Texas Muslimaat and Forum of Muslims for Unity are local Muslim nonprofit groups that promote charitable works and education. The Institute of Interfaith Dialog holds regular interfaith gatherings that aim to teach non-Muslims about Islam.

With hundreds of people expected to attend and only a few days to find another site, Muslim organizer Shams Siddiqi said they couldn't find another facility. That's when leaders at Congregation Beth Israel, Austin's largest synagogue, offered to host the celebration.

"Symbolically, that's a very good thing," Siddiqi said of the joint Jewish-Muslim endeavor.

Of Hyde Park's decision, he said it was "unfortunate that people still feel this way in this day and age."

Some Christians object to praying with people of other faith backgrounds or allowing those people to worship in their sanctuaries.

Hyde Park Baptist, an evangelical megachurch at West 39th Street and Speedway, is not a member of Interreligious Ministries, and church leaders were not planning to participate in the service, Flowers said.

Every year, a different faith group hosts the Thanksgiving event, which typically includes food, prayer, song and dance. Last year, St. Louis Catholic Church hosted. This year, because the Muslim groups did not have their own space that was large enough, they decided to rent the Quarries, a 58-acre property near MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Duval Road that the church has owned since 1984.

Flowers said she was disheartened by the church's decision. "As a Christian, my first response is, what would Jesus do in this situation?" she said.

She also stressed the importance of respecting all beliefs and said Beth Israel's involvement is a blessing.

"They said, 'It's an honor to be able to provide the space, especially knowing our co-hosts are Muslims,' " Flowers said.

Synagogue leaders said they would arrange space for Muslims to make their evening prayers, Flowers said. "What a great testimony of inclusion."

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