Bernie Sanders

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is a candidate for the 2016 presidential nomination. (Courtesy Photo)

Democratic presidential contender U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders highlighted the importance of American tolerance of diverse religions and ethnicities at a recent meeting of religious leaders in Washington, D.C.

Sanders met with two Muslim clerics, Imam Talib Shareef, president of the Nation’s Mosque, and Masid Muhammad; retired U.S. Army Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad; Rabbi Batya Steinlauf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington; the Rev. Reginald Green, a longtime District minister and one of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s; and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. The meeting occurred at Shareef’s place of worship on Dec. 16.

The senator said that he wanted to meet with leaders of various faiths because of the “amount of fear and anxiety going on in the country.”

“People are concerned about international terrorism and they are worried about the state of the economy,” he said. “People are working harder and making less, they are worried about retirement and what will happen to their children today and they are worried about climate change.”

Sanders said that the country’s state of restlessness has produced divisive rhetoric among some political leaders, particularly GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“We can’t let the demagogues divide us on the basis of religion, national origin, skin color or gender,” the Vermont lawmaker said.

Long the lone Independent voice in Congress, Sanders served in the House from 1991 to 2007 and in the Senate from 2007 to the present. He is Jewish by faith, which gives him a special insight into the trials and tribulations of persecuted people.

“The Nazis killed millions of people in Europe in the 1930s and 40s,”” he said. “There was also genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s based on people who were different. In our own country we saw people go through horrendous pain and suffering such as Native Americans, Blacks, and the Chinese through the Chinese Expulsion Act as well as immigrants from Ireland and Italy because they were different.”

Sanders talked about the fears some Americans held regarding their political leaders.

“In 1960, people were afraid of electing a Catholic as president and John F. Kennedy turned out to be a popular and effective president,” he said. “In 2008, there were fears of Barack Obama being president but he was re-elected in 2012. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, raised the fears of some but he did pretty well in 2012.”

Sanders, who fought segregated dorm rooms as a student at the University of Chicago and attended the 1963 March on Washington, blamed much of the anti-Muslim talk in the country on Trump.

“At this moment, people are listening to Donald Trump catering to their fears and anxieties,” he said. “There was this talk about immigrants from Mexico being rapists and that the average Muslim is a terrorist. There has been talk of shutting down mosques and you hear an increase in hate speech and death threats to people like Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), who is a Muslim.

“Enough is enough. It is time to end religious bigotry. I am asking all presidential candidates to stand and condemn anti-Muslim rhetoric and hatred.”

Shareef noted that he spent 33 years in the U.S. Air Force, and Muhammad pointed out his Army service, especially in Iraq. Both said that they were proud Americans and criticized any use of Islam to justify violence and hatred toward fellow Americans.

Ellison, who has endorsed Sanders for the president, said that his son is in the military presently and is a Muslim. He heartedly supports Sanders’ push for tolerance and inclusion.

“We need leaders that will bring people together,” the representative said. “Whenever you green-light hatred, you will get more of it.”