A group of interfaith leaders gathered at a law enforcement command center set up at the Good Shepherd Catholic Community near the synagogue of the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, to help defuse the tense standoff with an armed man who took four people hostage at a synagogue January 15.
They helped the FBI negotiate with the captor, who held Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi, captive for 11 hours, along with three worshippers.
Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British man, entered the synagogue and demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence for the attempted murder of U.S. soldiers. Siddiqui is being held at a prison nearby, close to Fort Worth, Texas.
The interfaith leaders included Bob Roberts, Jr., pastor of the Northwood Church in the nearby suburb of Keller and co-founder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network; Imam Omar Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research; Azhar Azeez, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America; and Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley of Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas. They stayed through the crisis to provide support and solidarity in the face of the antireligious crime.
“Those courses, that instruction, helped me to understand that you need to act in moments where your life is threatened. I would not have had the courage, I would not have had the knowhow or what to do without that instruction,” he told CNN. “I want people to understand, it doesn't matter if you are in a synagogue, if you're Jewish, if you're Muslim, if you're Christian, if you're religious at all. It can happen in a shopping mall. Unfortunately, this is the world that we're living in.”
In an interview with CBS This Morning, Rabbi Cytron-Walker described how, at the end of the siege, he and two other hostages remained. The fourth had been allowed to leave when a medical condition threatened his safety. Noticing that the gunman was no longer positioned where he could keep them all captive at once, the rabbi made sure the other two hostages were ready to flee.
“I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman. And I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired," Cytron-Walker said.
The FBI SWAT team then stormed the synagogue. Akram died on the scene, but authorities haven't said if he took his own life or was killed by police.
“There’s probably no one who can handle it better than [Rabbi Cytron-Walker] because he gets a bigger picture than just his own tribe,” Pastor Roberts said in a Religion News Service article a day after the crisis. “That’s how he has lived his life in the public square—committed to his own faith but respectful of other people’s faiths.”
Cytron-Walker, who has led Congregation Beth Israel since 2006, is well known as an interfaith activist who has deep-seated friendships with Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths. His small synagogue, with a membership of about 125 families, works actively to help foster good relations among people from different religious backgrounds.
“I hope this incident will be an opportunity to deepen and broaden relationships between faith communities,” said Rabbi Nancy Kasten, chief relationship officer at Faith Commons, a Dallas-based interfaith organization.
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