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Santa Rosa interfaith panel fosters discussion about common ground among faiths

Amid a global social environment that can feel, to many, increasingly strained by religious differences, representatives of the world’s leading faiths came together Sunday in Santa Rosa to discuss the values their spiritual traditions have in common.

Before a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the Presbyterian Church of the Roses near Montgomery Village, a panel of five people - one each from the Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist faiths - discussed their religions and the areas in which they have long imparted similar lessons to their adherents.

“Religions are not meant to separate each other, separate us,” said Hindu panelist Dr. Sulochina Lulla.

“They’re meant to unite us - unite us in a humanitarian manner, because we’re all human beings.”

During the discussion presented by the San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group and the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County, the five panelists highlighted areas where the teachings of their religions often overlap, such as variations of the golden rule - treating others as one wishes to be treated.

A recurring theme was the idea that no religion was any more right than the other, and that all faiths can, in fact, coexist.

“We believe that there is more than one path to righteousness. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a good person,” said Jewish panelist Esther Heller, a Menlo Park parliamentarian.

Christian panelist Dr. Henry Millstein, content manager and programs analyst for the Islamic group, spoke of what he characterized as Jesus’ “radical hospitality,” in that he was welcoming toward various kinds of people frowned upon by others.

But while he cast that concept as a particularly Christian one, he said it applied to other religions, too.

“Really, that attitude of acceptance and openness to other people across differences - that’s something that I have seen is fundamental to every religious and ethical tradition,” he said.

Responding to the same question about essential values across different faiths, Buddhist panelist Venerable JianHu Shifu said his religion believes strongly in the notion that everyone has what it takes to become fully enlightened.

“There are no evil people. There are people who are misguided and ignorant,” he said.

“Anybody can be taught if we have the right teacher for them.”

When the group was asked by an audience member about values their religions hold in the “highest regard,” Muslim panelist Ameena Jandali, content director for the Islamic group, focused on another common area: the significance behind religious practices like fasting.

“It’s so easy to put on religious garb, or groom your beard, or even to fast and to pray,” Jandali said.

“But how that impacts you as a human being is the real test.”

Sandra Shand, a Quaker from Petaluma, said she was motivated to attend Sunday’s discussion because she had observed an “eruption of hatred” in the United States lately that she wanted to help counteract.

She found the panel’s insights useful toward accomplishing that goal.

“Any time we can learn more about other human beings and their lives, the less we are tempted to fear them,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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