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Prayer for a Muslim lawmaker

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If you type the name Stephanie Borowicz into the YouTube search box, you’ll see images of Pennsylvania State Representative Stephanie Borowicz reciting a prayer at the opening of the government body on March 25. That’s not unusual, prayers are normally used to open a session of the house. On this day, Borowicz said the name “Jesus” 13 times in the less than two-minute incantation, which seemed an awkward choice to some, given that the very next bit of business on the schedule was the swearing in of the first Muslim woman ever elected to the house, Movita Johnson-Harrell.

Muslims generally believe that Jesus was a prophet, if not the son of God, and the Quran devotes a good deal of space to Jesus and Mary. Johnson-Harrell said the first part of the prayer didn’t really bother her, but when Borowicz brought politics into the mix, it became offensive.

Part of the prayer was this: “God, I pray for our leader Speaker Turzai, leader Cutler, Gov. Wolf, President Trump. Lord, thank you that he stands beside Israel, unequivocally, Lord, that you, Jesus, that we’re blessed because we stand by Israel, and we ask for the peace of Jerusalem as your word says, God.”

It might not have been a great idea to bring up Israel in context of kicking off the work of a group of democratically elected lawmakers. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is up for election on the day this column will go to press, recently told his countrymen via Facebook that the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arabs are not really citizens after all. In response to a celebrity who posted that Arabs living within the geographical boundaries of Israel are indeed citizens, Netanyahu posted, “According to the nation-state basic law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people—and of it alone.” The law he referred to, which the Knesset passed in July 2018, does define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.  

The United States, however, was founded on the principals of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Borowicz was signaling an opposite philosophy. Perhaps to more clearly drive the point home, near the end of the prayer, Borowicz recited, “Every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord.”

There were many tongues in the house, at the time, that were not likely uplifted by those words. Being such an auspicious occasion, Johnson-Harrell, who won a special election on March 12, had invited some 50 guests to the searing-in ceremony, more than 30 of them Muslims.

After the event, Gov. Tom Wolf apologized to Johnson-Harrell and said he had been “horrified” by the whole thing.

Johnson-Harrell posted a statement the following day that said, “I viewed yesterday’s prayer more as a political statement that was Islamophobic, xenophobic and absolutely degrading to not only me and my guests, but my House members. My presence and my [visage] in the House sends a message that we have to represent everyone in the commonwealth not just particular groups in the commonwealth but all of the constituents who live here.”

Some 15 members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus issued similar statements. Rep. Joanna McClinton, wrote, “As a Christian, I’m just curious to know how this is done ‘in Jesus’ name?’ In a time when Muslims are literally under attack across the globe, I was very disappointed and totally outraged.”

Sen. Vincent Hughes wrote, “The actions were an attack on the Islamic faith and an attack on Pennsylvania itself. Our commonwealth was founded on the idea of religious freedom and was created to be a safe place for people to practice their chosen faith unhindered. Yesterday’s official action attacked the very notion of Pennsylvania’s well-documented and mostly proud history.”

Rep. Brian Kirkland, wrote, “The prayer given yesterday morning by a newly-elected GOP member was distasteful, disrespectful and highly insensitive. As a Christian, I was appalled by the so called ‘prayer’ and embarrassed for the guests who had to witness such a divisive choice of words. We congratulate Representative Johnson-Harrell as she made history by being the first Muslim woman elected in the General Assembly.”

The members of the caucus and other have called for Borowicz to apologize. To this point she has refused to do so, and she told a reporter that she would never apologize for praying.

It would seem that coming up with a prayer that emphasized tolerance, charity, the golden rule and other compassionate qualities closely linked to Christianity would have been a relatively easy thing to do for any pious person. Instead, it appears that Borowicz made a deliberate attempt to offend the first Muslim woman ever elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature, and that is not a very Christian thing to do.

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