Dalai Lama promotes harmony of religions

San Francisco, USA - The Dalai Lama proclaimed himself a ``defender of Muslim teachings'' Saturday during a groundbreaking interfaith conference in San Francisco.

Though the conference was intended to start a religious peace movement, it also served to publicly align Muslims with the Dalai Lama, considered by many the incarnation of divine compassion whose iconic image has become an international symbol of peace.

Representatives from the world's major religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and American Indian traditions -- came from as far away as Egypt, some with just two weeks' notice.

Organizers hoped that the Dalai Lama's support would help mend Islam's reputation in the West. The religion's image has been battered by world events including the attacks of Sept. 11, the subsequent war in Iraq and the riots following Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, including one showing him wearing a bomb in his turban.

``He has a lot of energy in the United States. People like him, respect him,'' said Imam Seyed Mehdi Khorasani, who invited the Nobel peace laureate to the two-day conference after befriending him in September. ``Why should we not use him for our cause?''

In Western society, Buddhism probably has the best public image because of its association with peace, said Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, founder of the Zaytuna Institute. Islam, he said, has the worst, because people have linked it with violence.

Yusuf cited recent polls showing more than 40 percent of Americans had negative views of Islam. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found that nearly 60 percent of those polled thought there were more violent extremists within Islam than other religions.

Followers want to change those perceptions, noting that they too are part of the Abrahamic faiths. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last in a line of prophets that include Moses and Jesus.

``Ordinary people have these great misconceptions, which fuels more extremism,'' Yusuf said to reporters, noting that the current tensions were ``untenable.''

``You better change perceptions,'' he said. ``Not to reach extremists like bin Laden -- I don't think we'll reach him with the Dalai Lama, to be honest with you.''

Speakers at the private event, held at the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill, said people must emphasize the commonalities among religions -- love, justice, compassion, charity -- instead of the divisions.

``Their suffering is my suffering; their joy is my joy. This is the attitude we should strive for,'' said Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a nun with the Vedanta Society of Southern California. ``They are not a Hindu, not a Muslim, not a Buddhist. They are our own people, they are our brothers and sisters.''

The divine is too great for human minds to fully comprehend, the Dalai Lama said. So people understand it in different ways -- as Buddhists, as Muslims, as Jews, as Christians, as Hindus. In ancient times, different cultures were isolated so differences mattered little, he said. But with globalization, people must learn to work together since the ``whole world is becoming one entity, one community.''

There are problems, such as suicide bombers, he admitted, but such ``mischievous people'' exist in every faith.

``Muslim tradition, like others, also deserves respect,'' said the Dalai Lama, noting that Muslims and Buddhists had co-existed peacefully in Tibet for four centuries.

His words heartened Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut who was among the more than 500 people in attendance Saturday.

``It was such a wonderful act of generosity,'' she said. ``Muslims in America are feeling so isolated and alone and we're always on the defensive. This act of solidarity and compassion -- it gives me so much hope and courage to feel I can go forward and not feel alone.''

Samina Sundas of Palo Alto agreed with the Dalai Lama's advice not to simply talk about getting along, but also to put action behind it.

``What we need to do is take this to the living room of every American,'' said Sundas, who is Muslim and holds an open house every year. Last year, 265 people came.

``When you bring people face to face, when you have eye contact,'' she said, ``it's hard to call them `terrorists.' ''

She hoped the Dalai Lama's actions would inspire more prominent people to defend Islam.

``I would like the pope to come next,'' she said.