Religious leaders call for compassion, reform on immigration

Published: Saturday, May 11 2013 9:52 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of various faiths gathered Saturday night for a special service of reflection and prayer on the subject of immigration.

"This evening, in the midst of national debate, we gather not to debate but to pray," Reverend Steve Klemz of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church said in his welcoming remarks.

Reverend Klemz said he hoped the prayer offered by those in attendance, as well as all those around the nation looking toward productive immigration reform, would help move the nation from a position of fear to one of faith.

"Wherever there is fear, lives are hardened, hearts are hardened and borders are closed," he said.

The service, which was held at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, featured an address by the Most Reverend John Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, as well as comments by Reverend Curtis Price of the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, Father Elias Koucos of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church, Betty Yanowitz of Congregation Kol Ami, Imam Muhammed Mehtar of the Khadeeja Islamic Center and The Reverend Canon Pablo Ramos of Iglesia Episcopal de San Esteban.

During his remarks, Bishop Wester said he was puzzled by the harsh vitriol directed at the immigrant community, especially when the national history of the United States is one of immigration. But he said the interfaith service reminded him how various and diverse individuals ascribe to the notion of a loving, compassionate and merciful God despite their own individual shortcomings.

"We have to humbly admit that we fall far short in that regard," he said.

Bishop Wester shared several statistical figures, such as the number of deportations and prosecutions performed annually for individuals who enter the country illegally and the costs of maintaining border security. He also described the hardships faced by many immigrants, saying the fear of discovery is bad for individuals, families and the nation as a whole.

"We have created a shadow society, a permanent underclass," he said. "It's horrible for the immigrants. It's horrible for our country."

Whatever actions are taken by the government on the issue of immigration, he said an effort to preserve and protect families and children should lead the steps toward comprehensive reforms.

"We are hopeful and prayerful that family unity will be a priority in the bill being marked up now in the U.S. Senate," he said.

Imam Mehtar spoke on the idea that individuals, independent of their citizenship status in this country, have much in common with one another.

"Every individual has the same needs," he said. "Immigrant or non-immigrant, foreigner or native, we have the need for housing, the need for shelter, the need for clothing and the need for food."

He said that as a Muslim, he has often encountered hostility to the notion of more individuals of diverse backgrounds entering the country. He was dismissive of the fear and negativity spread by some members of society and said the majority of those who enter the United States, legally or illegally, do so with the hope of creating a better life for themselves and their families.

"Individuals that are coming to America are, in reality, coming for a better America and to make America a better place," he said. "As a Muslim and as a man of faith, I have learned that when we give an outsider a helping hand, they give back much greater than we've given them."

Imam Mehtar also said that because of the potential for unexpected tragedy to uproot anyone from their home, it is necessary to be tolerant and loving of those who are less fortunate.

"We do not know what the future holds, so it is unfair for us to judge others," he said.

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