03/06/2015 10:59 am ET

Boston Interfaith Leaders Say Marathon Bombing Trial Isn't About Islam -- It's About The Victims

Boston Globe via Getty Images

The trial for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began Wednesday amid what some see as an increasingly tense climate for Muslims in the country. In Boston, though, faith leaders say the focus should be on building bridges between faiths and supporting the victims as the trial reopens what will be deep wounds for many.

"This trial is about closure and healing as much as it is about bringing the perpetrator to justice," Nichole Mossalam, director of the Islamic Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told The Huffington Post. "A lot of victims are finally going to get to face what happened to them and begin their own process of healing. I believe this is more about them and their process, and we need to support them."

In the wake of the April 2013 attack, which killed three and injured nearly 300 others, it quickly became public that Tsarnaev had embraced a radicalized strain of Islam -- sparking a national discussion about homegrown terror that has only intensified since the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East.

The Muslim American community felt a backlash. Anti-Islamic hate crimes made up 13.7 percent of all hate crimes in 2013, compared to 11.6 percent in 2012 -- an increase Pew Research blames in part on the Boston marathon bombing.

The Islamic Society of Boston's mosque in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Tsarnaev and his older brother had reportedly attended services, came under fire in the aftermath of the bombing. Some accused the mosque and its affiliated Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center of fostering extremists, an accusation to which local faith leaders have roundly objected.

"ISBCC has responded to allegations," said Burns Stanfield, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Boston and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. "I'm convinced that the charges are not accurate."

Stanfield has built relationships with a wide array of Boston interfaith leaders over the years, he told HuffPost over the phone. After the bombing in 2013, the leaders quickly fell back on these relationships to address the community's need for healing. GBIO hosted an event in a church basement shortly after the bombing, inviting community members to reflect on the ways in which violence of all types affected their lives.

"At the end we turned to our neighbor and prayed with one another," Stanfield said. "That was really powerful."

Almost a year later, GBIO gathered 250 interfaith advocates at the Cambridge mosque to discuss "restrengthening" the community. When the call to prayer sounded, Stanfiend recalled, Muslims and non-Muslims alike took 10 minutes to pray and reflect in their own ways.

"It was a very moving moment of just being quiet and being in respect with the way our partners lived their life of faith," he said. "It speaks to what we consider to be the longterm work of knowing each other and trusting each other and building relationships."

After the attack, the slogan "Boston Strong" became synonymous with these kind of community efforts, the power of which local Muslim leader Yusufi Vali says many outside of Boston may not grasp.

"Time and again, Christians, Jews and others have rallied around the Muslim community when it has needed support," Vali, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, said in an email to HuffPost.

Vali echoed Mossalam's sentiments that the focus now should be on the victims and celebrating the relationships among faith and community groups that make Boston strong.

"What is unique in here is that the leadership of these organizations don't just know each other -- they think about each other, they care about each other, they try to act in ways that take into account each others' well being," Vali said. "We are thinking of [the victims] now, not ourselves."



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