Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC/Rediff
Washington, Jul 13: Senate aides have said that apparently the protestors who disrupted the beginning of Hindu chaplain Rajan Zed's history-making opening prayer in the US Senate July 12, belonged to the American Family Association. The association had been waging a vicious campaign to torpedo the invitation to Zed, ever since it was announced that a Hindu chaplain would deliver the opening prayer.
Three protestors identified as Ante Nediko Pavkovic, Katherine Lynn Pavkovic and Christan Renee Sugar by Capitol Hill police, who however, did not provide their hometown, ages and affiliations, were arrested, handcuffed and taken away when they shouted complaints from the gallery, including, "Lord Jesus, protect us from this abomination," as soon as Zed was introduced and began his prayer.
The Associated Press reported that the only male protestor among the three had told its correspondent before being handcuffed and hauled away by police, "We are Christians and patriots."
From the time reports began appearing in the mainstream media that a Hindu chaplain had been invited to open the US Senate session July 12 as a guest chaplain, the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association has been sending action alerts exhorting its members and other Christian fundamentalists to "send an e-mail to your Senator now, expressing your disappointment in the Senate decision to invite a Hindu to open the session with prayer."
It questioned as to "why the US government is seeking the invocation of a non-monotheistic god," and said that "since Hindus worship multiple gods, the prayer will be completely outside the American paradigm, flying in the face of the American motto, 'One Nation Under God.'"
According to the AFA's action alert, "In Hindu, you have not one God, but many, many, many, many, many gods. And certainly that was never in the minds of those who did the Constitution, the Declaration (of Independence) when they talked about Creator -- that's not one that fits here because we don't know which creator we're talking about within the Hindu religion."
Quoting David Barton, whom it described as a Christian historian, the AFA questioned the "motivation of Senate leaders," to invite a Hindu chaplain to deliver the opening prayer, "given that Hindus are a tiny constituency of the American public."
Barton said, "This is not a religion that has produced great things in the world. You look at India, you look at Nepal -- there's persecution going in both of those countries that is gendered by the religious belief that is present there, and Hindus dominate in both of those countries."
He however, acknowledged that there was nothing unconstitutional with "a Hindu prayer in the Senate," but wondered about the political side of it. "One definitely wonders about the pragmatic side of it," Barton said, and asked, "What is the message, and why is the message needed? And will it actually communicate anything other than engender with folks like me a lot of questions."
Barton complained that he knows of at least seven cases where Christians have lost their bid "to express their own faith in a public prayer."
The AFA also sent out a form e-mail to its members and other Christian organisations to flood the Senators' offices with, which said, "Dear Senator, I'm strongly disappointed in the US Senate's decision to invite a Hindu to open the session with prayer. Will you next invite someone from the Church of Scientology to open the Senate with prayer?"
The Hindu American Foundation, while lauding the Senate's decision to invite a Hindu chaplain to deliver the opening prayer, slammed the American Family Association for its "intolerance," and exclusivist view."
Ishani Chowdhury, executive director of HAF, in a statement said, "The Hindu American Foundation is certainly pleased that the faith of nearly one billion of the world's population, and two million American Hindus, has been represented today at the Senate."
She said, "As a strong, vibrant and deeply faithful community, we share the need to be represented as part of the fabric of the heterogeneous American society."
But Chowdhury said, "It is quite disheartening to see that those misinformed about the Hindu faith, and its countless contributions, have taken the route of disrupting a significant and solemn occasion."
However, she said that "Just as the Hindu community was troubled by the intolerance and the exclusivist view of the American Family Association that were reflected by few protestors that were removed from the gallery today, our community is heartened and grateful by the brave voices of Senator Harry Reid and other Senators who made this historic moment possible in the halls of Congress today."
"We reach out to everyone to join us in continuing to build a society based on the principles of tolerance, pluralism and understanding," Chowdhury added.
The US-India Political Action Committee, also slammed the AFA, with USINPAC chairman Sanjay Puri writing to the Association's chairman Donald E Wildmon saying that the Indian American community "...is dismayed that your organisation has taken regarding a prayer offered by Hindu chaplain, Rajan Zed before the United States Senate."
Puri said that USINPAC "...believes in religious tolerance and diversity as a founding principle of our democracy," and argued that "...the Constitution assures every single citizen should have the right of religious freedom and we support that notion."
"It is our hope and goal that we can open up this dialogue because we were dismayed to see the communication made to your members that was blatantly offensive and factually erroneous," he said, and added, "As a United States organisation representing the Indian American community, which includes diverse groups from various religious backgrounds, we hope that you will make efforts to bring people together."
Puri acknowledged that "organisations certainly have a right to protest, but the disruption of these proceedings was unnecessary and frankly un-American."
"Frankly, I am dismayed that people would protest this very basic ideal, and I welcome other faiths to be allowed to be given an opportunity to offer a morning prayer," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who arranged for Zed to deliver the prayer, taking to the Senate floor after the protests and Zed's invocation, said, "If people have any misunderstanding about Indians and Hindus, all they have to do is think of Gandhi who gave his life for peace."
He said that "I think it speaks well of our country that someone representing the faith of about a billion people comes here and can speak in communication with our heavenly Father regarding peace."