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Bin Laden's death a tough subject for the pulpit

The killing of Osama bin Laden, a man who was America's face of evil for nearly a decade, left Christians, Jews and Muslims relieved, proud or even jubilant. For their religious leaders, it was sometimes hard to know just what to say about that.
Image: Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich.
Jebary Alsaade, right, and other Muslims pray May 6 at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich. The killing of Osama bin Laden, a man who was America's face of evil for nearly a decade, left Christians, Jews and Muslims relieved, proud or even jubilant. For their religious leaders, it was sometimes hard to know just what to say about that. Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The killing of Osama bin Laden, a man who was America's face of evil for nearly a decade, left Christians, Jews and Muslims relieved, proud or even jubilant. For their religious leaders, it was sometimes hard to know just what to say about that.

There is at least some dissonance between the values they preach and the triumphant response on the streets of New York and Washington to the death of a human being — even one responsible for thousands of killings in those areas and around the world.

The Rev. Bill Kelly, priest at Saint Mary of the Assumption in Dedham, Mass., near Boston, said he was taken aback by the celebrations because he detected bloodlust. Christians should rejoice that justice was done, but not that another human being was destroyed, he said.

At the same time, Kelly said, the emotional reaction is understandable.

"This is 10 years of pent-up anger, hurt, frustration, especially here in the Boston area because the crimes were initiated here," he said, referring to the two planes that took off from Boston before crashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "We all know people who lost people."

Kelly said the problem comes when the reaction to the terrorist leader's death is "tinged with hatred and revenge."

Some religious leaders weren't planning to say much about bin Laden's killing at services. The Rev. David Howard, on the other hand, shouted his approval — in a sense — from outside his Virginia Beach church's doors.

"OSAMA BIN LADEN, SATAN AND THE FINAL VICTORY OF JESUS," read the marquee outside Brook Baptist Church, publicizing the sermon Howard started writing hours after he heard that a team of Navy SEALs based in Virginia Beach killed the al-Qaida leader.

There is no equivocating in his message: Howard has no doubt that bin Laden was an instrument of Satan who was brought to justice with the aid of God, who answered the prayers of millions.

"We should pray for bad people, evil people, that when we pray to God he will change their lives. But if he won't change their lives, especially those who have a lot of power to hurt a lot of people, you pray for their end because they're causing so much pain," he said. "You pray somehow God will take them out. The Bible is very clear that God is in control and every person in power is because God put them there. He can put them there, he can keep them there or he can take them out. That's his prerogative."

The leader of one of the nation's largest mosques was equally direct during prayers Friday.

"There is no doubt that this man was a thug, he was a murderer," Imam Hassan al-Qazwini told worshippers at the Islamic Center of America in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. "His hands were stained by the blood of thousands of innocent people — Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

Qazwini, who delivered his sermon in a large, circular hall filled to capacity, said the Quran is clear that someone who kills one innocent person "is doomed to hell forever." And the imam was particularly incensed that bin Laden "committed atrocities against innocent people ... while he was calling 'Allahu akbar,'" or "God is great."

"He's responsible for tarnishing the image of Islam in this country. He's responsible for tarnishing the image of Muslims," he said. "We're happy to see the man who caused so much pain for Muslims in this country is gone ... finally."

Before the sermon, he told The Associated Press that Muslims are discouraged from showing jubilation over death, but cheering the news of bin Laden's demise marks an occasion where "justice was served."

The Vatican said Christians could never rejoice about the death of any human being, though it acknowledged the reasons the U.S. pursued bin Laden for nearly a decade. Spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said bin Laden was responsible for having caused the deaths of countless innocents and for having used religion to spread "division and hatred among people."

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and Nobel Peace laureate, said Tuesday in Los Angeles that although bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness as a human being, it is sometimes necessary to take counter-measures.

"Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened," he told students at the University of Southern California.

Reform Rabbi Eric Wisnia, of Princeton, N.J.'s Congregation Beth Chaim, observed that during the Passover holiday that ended April 26, Jews recount the 10 plagues carried out against Egyptian aggressors by dipping their fingers in wine 10 times. But they are forbidden to lick their fingers, lest they take pleasure in the pain of others.

Wisnia said the human impulse to rejoice when an evil criminal is brought to justice is understandable, with one important caveat: "Had he been captured, I would have hoped we would have had the same celebration."

Among Amish and Mennonites, bin Laden's killing clashes with their ethic of valuing every person as a son or daughter of God, though they also believe God allows a government to do what is necessary to protect its people, said Paul Miller, the director of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio. Though some shun technology, they still follow the news closely, and Miller said he wouldn't be surprised of some members of those churches have also celebrated bin Laden's death.

"That seems to me to be contrary to what God calls us to do and for our nation, as an enlightened country. One would think (we) might have some higher goals and some higher ethics than just to be following a retribution of an eye for eye, tooth for tooth," Miller said.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the Bible marks a distinction between individual Christians, who should pray for and forgive their enemies, and the state, which has a different responsibility. "God says they are to punish the evildoers," he said.

"I take no personal pleasure in Osama bin Laden's death, but the moral symmetry of the universe demands that a person who has perpetrated the terrible crimes against humanity that he's perpetrated deserves to be executed," Land said. "And I look upon what happened to him not as a killing, not as an assassination, but an execution for crimes he freely admitted to and bragged about."

At Congregation Neve Shalom, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Metuchen, N.J., a heated debate over how to respond broke out among the congregants as services ended Friday evening.

Kathryn Zahler, a compliance administrator from Colonia, N.J., said that taking delight in anyone's death feels inherently un-Jewish.

"For what it's worth, he had a family. He's obviously a very evil man. I think there was a sense of relief, but I wasn't celebrating," Zahler said.

But Mindy Epstein, a medical assistant also from Colonia, said she took joy in bin Laden's death, noting that al-Qaida showed no decency when it released a video of Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl being decapitated in 2002.

"I don't care if that makes me a non-Jew or not," Epstein said. "Put it on pay for view for the (Sept. 11) victims."

Congregation Neve Shalom's rabbi, Gerald Zelizer, said in an interview that according to the Talmud, a central Jewish text, if someone is trying to kill you, "you are obligated — not permitted — to kill that person before he kills you."

In his Saturday morning sermon, Zelizer reminded congregants that the day bin Laden was killed was also Holocaust Remembrance Day. He suggested that the phrase often used in reference to Hitler might also be appropriate for bin Laden: "May his name be blotted out and his memory forgotten."


Brock Vergakis can be reached at


Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay in Boston, Jeff Karoub in Dearborn, Mich., Josh Lederman in Metuchen, N.J., and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.