‘Of course they’re worried’: Triangle faith groups react to Trump travel order, Canadian mosque attack

Thousands rally in downtown Raleigh to protest Trump immigration policies

Thousands gather to voice their opposition to the immigration policies of President Donald Trump on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, on Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh.
Up Next
Thousands gather to voice their opposition to the immigration policies of President Donald Trump on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, on Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh.

In the face of President Donald Trump’s order that would shut down travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and an attack last month on a mosque in Quebec, faith communities in the Triangle are working together to promote unity and peace.

Trump’s executive order Jan. 27 temporarily barred immigrants, refugees and some U.S. citizens from seven countries from traveling to the United States, sparking protests across the country – including at least two in the Triangle. A federal judge in Seattle stayed the order on Feb. 3, and three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday on whether to lift the stay.

But the on-again, off-again order, as well as anti-Muslim sentiment and the attack on the Canadian mosque, has some Triangle refugees and Muslims concerned. Members of other faith communities also are worried.

“As Jews, we are deeply concerned about the current actions on immigration,” said Carin Savel, chief executive officer of The Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary. “These statements severely restrict immigration and instill fear among existing immigrant populations.”

The Jewish Federation, a national organization, has received bomb threats against its branches across the country. The Raleigh-Cary center has not received a threat but is on alert.

“As always, safety is the top priority, and we are following security protocols to coordinate with local law enforcement to ensure the safety of all members and visitors to our JCC,” Savel said.

Islamic Association of Raleigh Chairman Mohamed Elgamal said that targeting people because of their religion weighs heavily on all people of faith.

“Any attack on any faith or religion – a church, a temple or a mosque, anything, is something against every American’s values,” he said. “We are against terrorism no matter where it’s coming from ... I believe terrorism doesn’t have a region or faith.”

Elgamal said the Islamic Association has stepped up security and is working with interfaith groups and other faith communities, along with law enforcement, including the state and federal bureaus of investigation. But that’s not new.

“We have been doing this for years,” he said. “But especially this time.”

N.C. Council of Churches Director Jennifer Copeland said “an attack on people of faith anywhere is an attack of people of faith everywhere.”

“It’s not about whether it’s a mosque or a synagogue or a church,” she said. “It’s about people of faith being attacked for their belief system. We call that persecution – regardless of whether it’s a Muslim, a Jew or Christian. In the U.S. we value freedom of religion.”

Chad Austin, communications coordinator for the N.C. Baptist State Convention, said his group was praying for victims of the mosque attack Jan. 29. Six people were killed and 19 wounded by a gunman, and a Quebec native has been charged.

“We are grieved and saddened over acts of violence such as this one,” Austin said. “Our prayers go out to the individuals and families who have been impacted by this tragic incident, and our hope is that they would find comfort in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Elgamal said Trump’s travel ban reminds him of an incident in 1941, when Jewish refugees were turned away from U.S. shores and many later died in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“I think they’re taking it as a way to justify denying the basic rights to any people who really need shelter,” Elgamal said. “We should show people our American values like kindness and giving help to those who need it.”

Copeland said the Trump administration is “trying to capitalize on fears that are mostly unfounded in order to embed a culture of fear in the American people.”

The United States already has an extensive vetting process for refugees, Copeland said.

“Yet we’re playing on the fear in the minds of people who really don’t have anything to be afraid of,” she said. “When we become afraid, rightfully or not, we don’t think clearly.”

As the daughter of refugees, Savel said, she takes Trump’s executive order personally.

“The Jewish community knows all too well the suffering that comes when America turns away refugees,” she said. “We have experienced, first hand, the extraordinary contributions that we, as immigrants and the children of immigrants, have brought to our nation. We came to this country to pursue our hopes, our dreams, freely practice our faith, and realize the promise of America. We must not close our doors to those around the world who seek these same opportunities today.”

‘Of course they’re worried’

The ban is causing difficulties and spreading fear among Triangle Muslims, Copeland and Elgamal said.

At least one person connected to the Islamic Association of Raleigh – a teenage girl – was affected by the travel order, Elgamal said Monday.

“That’s just one example,” he said. “We have students who are here at our universities – N.C. State and Duke and the rest – and they are afraid. They are here to study, but they know if they go outside the country probably they cannot come back.”

Copeland said immigrants and refugees are afraid “they will be unfairly targeted and unfairly identified as people of violence on the basis of association.”

“We’re not talking about individual people anymore,” she said. “We’re just lumping people together in this one category: refugee equals dangerous person.”

Elgamal said Islam is unfairly characterized as a faith of violence.

“There is no radical Islam,” he said. “Only radical Muslims. Islam is a faith of peace, but there are some Muslims who take that faith and hijack it for their own purposes. We are against those people. Any violence or violent people, we are against.”

And people of faith have been working to resettle refugees throughout U.S. history, Copeland said.

“Right now they’re afraid for their friends,” Copeland said of faith groups that work with refugees. “Almost from day one, we started fielding calls of people asking what they can do to protect their neighbors.”

“Of course they are worried,” Elgamal said of Muslims in the Triangle. “The people are worried. Syrian refugees have friends and family outside the country and cannot come. We are worried for them.”

America has many established Muslim communities, Elgamal said, including in North Carolina.

“They were born here,” he said. “They’re second, third, fourth generation. We have many American Muslims who have never been outside the states. Deport them? Deport them to where?”

Elgamal said he hopes Trump will work to unite people.

“He is our president, like it or not, and we want him to succeed,” he said. “But we want him to reach out to people, everyone, even those who disagree with him.”

‘Take ’em a pound cake’

The Muslim community can do its part to educate the public and fight back against unfair judgment, though, Elgamal said.

“If you know some Muslims, you most likely won’t have biases against them. So most of the mosques are open almost 24 hours and everybody is welcome,” he said, adding that the Islamic Association has programs including preparing meals for those in need, a food pantry and others to help members of the community – not just Muslims.”

The ban itself goes against values in many faith communities, Copeland said.

“We believe people of faith drive out fear with love, not with courage,” she said. “The love of God that commands us to welcome the stranger, protect the vulnerable, shelter the weak. When you provide those kinds of safeguards to people, when you surround them with communities of love, they’re far less likely to be violent.”

And members of other faith communities can do something to help Muslims, Copeland said, by reaching out to Muslim neighbors throughout North Carolina.

“We’ve had churches calling asking how they can become sanctuary sites,” she said. “People of faith are really reaching out to stand by the Gospel imperative of loving God and loving your neighbor. That’s our higher calling.”

Elgamal, a first-generation Egyptian immigrant who owns Applied Technologies Inc. and raised his family in Chapel Hill, also said the Islamic Association has seen an outpouring of support.

“We have had many people reaching out to us,” he said. “We are humbled by the support. We receive lots of emails from the community, phone calls, in person. They say, ‘Don’t worry; if you need us you can come to our home. The churches will open sanctuaries for you.’”

Copeland encouraged North Carolinians to show a little Southern hospitality.

“Reach out to neighbors. Take ’em a pound cake and say ‘We’ve got your back.’ Spend time in the schools as a volunteer and ask to work with immigrant and refugee children. Let them know Americans, who they must be mortally afraid of right now, are actually nice.”

Trump’s effort to bar travelers from those seven countries is on track to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may eventually decide whether the executive branch has top authority on immigration and national security.

Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett