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Muslim man gets warmer audience

John Emery, who grew up Catholic and says he "transitioned" to Islam, speaks in front a slide showing the Arabic writing for "Allah." Emery spoke at the Alexandria Community and Technical College on Monday, April 23. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

The crowd was smaller, the questions friendlier. And Rashed Ferdous was able to leave town a whole lot sooner.

Ferdous, a Muslim and president of the Saint Anthony-based Islamic Resource Group, spoke in Alexandria on Monday along with fellow Muslim John Emery, a former Army interpreter from Apple Valley, and Lutheran pastor John Matthews. They were in town for a reception for "Tracks in the Snow," a photo exhibit of Minnesota Muslims on display at Alexandria Technical and Community College through Monday, April 30.

It was a repeat visit for Ferdous, who spoke to a crowd of about 200 in 2017 during an event that grew contentious at times.

This time, there were about 70 people in the audience, and though Ferdous and Emery drew questions about jihad, sharia law and salvation, there was also applause and laughter.

"I did something a little different this year," Ferdous said afterward. "I addressed 'women in Islam' and 'terrorism'-related misconceptions right away in the very beginning and assured people that there will be time for questions. Because of that, I think it was a bit better or warmer than last year. There were several people in the audience that I remembered from last year and they all came prepared with documents in their hand, but because I addressed some of those issues right away, I think some of them backed off."

He credited vocal supporters in the audience for discouraging some of the critics, and also said Matthews' involvement carried more weight with Christians who were present. Matthews is a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, and has taught classes alongside Ferdous.

When audience members began referring to Bible verses, Matthews rose to address them.

"Do prophets lie?" asked one man, before citing a verse from the New Testament, John 14:6, "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

Matthews responded that the questioner had put his finger on the verse that causes most of the problem between Christians and other groups.

He also said that after 45 years in ministry and studying scriptures as well as Hebrew texts, he had come to his own conclusion.

"I don't think Jesus said that," he said.

While some Christian circles might condemn Matthews for that statement, he added that Jesus, as a Jew, would never have claimed there was only one way to the Father. The writer of the Book of John, working around 95 A.D., had a motive to ascribe those words to Jesus because the early Christian church, largely led by Jews, was seeking to separate itself from the Jewish faith, Matthews said.

The idea that Jesus is the only path to God, he said, dehumanizes other groups and even deserves blame for the Holocaust.

"That's the lethal outcome of believing John 14:6," he said.

Meanwhile, Ferdous condemned those who commit violence in the name of Islam.

"ISIS is to Islam what KKK is to Christianity," he said. "That's how Muslims see these people. I hope and pray they disappear. That would be a good service to all of us."

Emery, a former Catholic who said he was drawn to Islam partly for its rituals, said that he believes Allah created people differently so they can get to know each other. He also said he believes that someday the controversy surrounding Islam, including over recent immigrants who practice Islam, will die down.

"The only thing people are going to care about is where's the best Somali restaurant," he said.

Last year, Ferdous remained in town past 10 p.m. But this time, he, Emery and Matthews were able to head out the door by 8:30 p.m.

"It's still light," he observed.