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NCC interfaith leader honored by Muslims, warns of 'gift'

New York City, Sept. 4, 2007--The Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches USA (NCC), is the recipient of the Interfaith Unity Award presented by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

"It was a total surprise," Premawardhana said.  The award was presented this past weekend by ISNA President Dr. Ingrid Mattson at the 44th annual ISNA convention in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, Ill.  The event drew 30,000 attendees, the largest such gathering of Muslims on the continent.

The inscription on the award reads, "Islamic Society of North America presents Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, a fellow activist for peace, justice and reconciliation, a 'Christian believer' as described in Qur'an (3:113) in recognition of his tireless contribution to advancing inter-religious dialogue and partnership, with our prayers for a continued demonstration of energy, understanding and commitment."

On Sunday (Sept. 2) Premawardhana joined Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in responding to keynote speaker, the Hon. Ibrahim Rasool, provincial premier of Western Cape in South Africa.

"Indeed there is much that Christians and Muslims don't know about each other," Premawardhana said.  "Fact is, we have a great deal more in common in our religious traditions than our differences.  No, we don't need to hide our differences.  They are real and we must honestly deal with them.  But we have more in common." 

Premawardhana also told his Muslim audience of a "gift" sent to thousands of Christian pastors earlier this year.

"In April of this year, the far right wing advocacy organization, Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), sent a book, "Islamic Imperialism," by Efraim Karsh as a gift to 100,000 churches around the country," said Premawardhana.  "They probably spent at least $1.7 million on that project.  An anonymous donor wanted them to educate the churches, they said."

"I read that book as soon as I could get my hands on a copy," continued Premawardhana.  "Despite it being published by Yale University Press, the book has only a thin veneer of academic scholarship.  Its purpose is not to educate but to persuade towards a right-wing ideology.  It does not seek to restore relationships as the Bible teaches, but to destroy relationships by fear-mongering.  It tries to portray Islam as unique among religions in supporting imperial ambitions.  This distorted view of history dismisses Christian support of imperialism in one sentence. It is an unfortunate truth: all our religious traditions have legitimized imperialism and supported military adventures.  In this Islam is not unique.  Those who promote fear mongering ideologies that strengthen divisions in human relationships, I am convinced, are not doing the will of God." 

Premawardhana's complete statement is available online at

Premawardhana, a native of Sri Lanka, is no newcomer to interfaith work. Prior to joining the NCC in 2003 Premawardhana was senior pastor of Chicago's Ellis Avenue Church (formerly Cornell Baptist Church). He is a member of the Alliance of Baptists, one of the NCC's 35 member communions. 

He was active in the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, said to be one of the nation's oldest interfaith organizations. 

Premawardhana was also a leader in the congregation-based community organizing network, the Gamaliel Foundation. Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations across racial, ethnic and economic lines join in 51 community organizations in 28 states to work together for issues of economic justice and immigrant rights.

NCC News contact:  Dan Webster, 212.870.2252,


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