Members of faith communities discuss safety concerns amid rise in hate crimes

Amid a nationwide rise in acts of hate, more than 50 suburban leaders and members of various religious, ethnic and minority groups came together Thursday in Schaumburg to discuss how community-level work can help faith communities feel safer.

The interfaith breakfast and discussion was hosted by U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi's 8th Congressional District office in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League.

"Sadly, in our own region, we've seen instances of discrimination that have been perpetrated against members of different faiths," said Krishnamoorthi, a Schaumburg Democrat.

"In Pingree Grove, unfortunately, there was antisemitic harassment and bullying at a middle school there," he added. "I've heard members of the Hindu community echo the sentiment that they have felt discrimination in different ways, as have members of the Sikh community and so forth. ... We are united today in our condemnation of these acts of discrimination, prejudice, hate and bigotry toward anybody."

Krishnamoorthi invited DuPage Township Trustee Reem Townsend to speak at the outset of the gathering about a constituent's racist comment, calling her a "suicide bomber" during a public meeting in April.

Townsend, who represents Bolingbrook and small parts of Romeoville, Naperville and Plainfield, is a Muslim American and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants.

"That wasn't just an attack on my religion. I'm also Palestinian so it was an attack on my ethnicity," Townsend said.

Krishnamoorthi spoke about his Hate Crimes Commission Act - legislation he has introduced each of the last seven years that would require the federal government to study and measure acts of hate targeting different groups.

The act would establish a bipartisan commission to suggest ways to address acts of hate against minority groups and help lawmakers put forward legislation to enact some of those ideas.

"We're hoping that we get more traction in this Congress than in the last," Krishnamoorthi said, adding that similar bipartisan efforts led to the Department of Justice measuring a spike in hate crimes toward Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Krishnamoorthi reminded religious leaders to apply for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's grant program to fund security measures at places of worship. Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, for example, has received grants every year the program has been in place, he added.

"We would urge all of you from the different mosques, temples, gurdwaras to do the same, and we can help you there," Krishnamoorthi said. "We can also help you with specific instances where we can be a liaison to the FBI or local police departments in investigating vandalism and specific acts and trying to get to the bottom of what's going on."

Aside from passing legislation, participants acknowledged the greater challenge is changing people's hearts and minds.

"I used to not dress like this, although I'm a Muslim ... you felt like people are judging you," said Shehrebanu Merchant, a South Barrington physician wearing a traditional hijab, or head covering, and abaya, a long cloak or a robe observant Muslim women wear.

"It is just sad story that we have to hide from our own identity and our own religion," said Merchant, who belongs to the Dawoodi Bohra community, a religious denomination within the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. "Why are we becoming such bigots?"

Other ideas discussed Thursday include: creating a working group of community leaders to proactively address discrimination; identifying those who might be reluctant to discuss such topics and how to reach them; and educating parents about bias and bullying in schools.

"We have to be willing to be courageous in having some of those uncomfortable conversations," Krishnamoorthi said.

The Anti-Defamation League offers educational programs and resources for K-12 and college-level students, and adults on preventive measures. Its Center of Extremism monitors hate groups nationwide and online, representatives said.

"We, in fact, feed all that information to law enforcement," said ADL Midwest Deputy Director Sharan Singh, whose office oversees hate crimes and incidents in nine states. "We are actually geared to train all law enforcement and prosecutors in the state so they know how to address this better with all communities. In the next couple of years, we'll be doing that for the entire state of Illinois."

  U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg, left, and Sharan Singh, Midwest deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke Thursday to more than 50 members of diverse faith communities and groups about rising discrimination and hate crimes. Madhu Krishnamurthy/
  U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg and representatives of the Anti-Defamation League spoke Thursday to a crowd of more than 50 members of diverse faith communities and groups about rising discrimination and hate crimes. Madhu Krishnamurthy/
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