All faiths are equally valued and welcomed in the US, a White House representative said yesterday, amid an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric across the country.
Convened by President Barack Obama, an event – 'Celebrating and Protecting America's Tradition of Religious Pluralism' – was held in Washington, bringing together faith leaders and representatives from NGOs to address the right to religious freedom in the US.
Head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Melissa Rogers, declared: "There are no second-class faiths in the USA," RNS reports, despite concerns about rising Islamophobia.
Media scrutiny has been aimed largely at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has been accused of fostering anti-Islamic sentiment. Last week, he released a campaign statement calling for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States". An increasing number of mosques have been vandalised, and some American Muslims have reported that they are afraid to pray openly, or to wear headscarves in public.
It's led to renewed calls to address inter-religious friction across the country.
"Pluralism is about participation and engagement with one another across our differences, not simply co-existing beside one another," Rogers said. We must "bring our various particularities and beliefs to the table of conversation."
During the gathering, Dr Robby Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute quoted statistics that show the majority of Americans do not have a close friend of a different faith to their own.
"As Baptist Christians in America today, it does not suffice to reference our history as champions of religious liberty. What is needed from us today is a commitment to living that core principle of our faith by reaching out to neighbours of other faiths and befriending them," said Rev A Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, in response to these statistics.
"My own testimony is that my friendships with Muslims have been critical in providing the lens of personal relationships through which to interpret so much of what is said about Islam and Muslims. I hope their friendship with me has done the same for them with regards to Christianity and Baptist Christians."
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted that the US was "founded by people who were fleeing persecution and looking for a place where they could freely practice their religion".
"This is basic to what it means to be an American," he said.
This sentiment was echoed in a speech given yesterday by Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.
"This discriminatory backlash not only threatens the millions of Muslims in the United States who peacefully practice their religion. It threatens all of us, because Muslims – like all Americans – work in our local businesses, teach in our schools, compete on our sports teams and risk their lives in defence of our country," she said.
"America derives its prosperity, strength and security from the diversity of its people. Hate-motivated violence and discrimination deserve no place in civilised society."
Gupta added that combating discrimination based on religion "remains fundamental not only to protecting our values but also to defending our freedom".
"We cannot – and we must not – allow our enemies to define how we live or to dictate how we treat one another. To people in this country of every faith and nationality who feel afraid, threatened or unsafe, please know that with this administration, this President and this Department of Justice – you will never stand alone," she said.
"As Americans, today we face challenging times. And as our nation confronts these issues, each of us as its citizens must renew our efforts to fight discrimination that violates our laws and contradicts our most fundamental values. If we stand united in these efforts – defending diversity over discrimination – there exists no challenge Americans cannot overcome."