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Politician who ignited controversy after taking aim at church's Ramadan sign visits mosque

Posted July 7

A school board member in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who ignited debate after publicly criticizing a Christian church for wishing Muslims a "blessed Ramadan," has since apologized and visited with Muslims at a local mosque.

The story began with a sign outside of St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, which read, "Wishing a blessed Ramadan to our Muslim neighbors" — a marquee message that truly riled Spring Grove Area School District member Matthew Jansen.

Jansen was so upset that he called the church to complain, leaving a voicemail that dubbed the sign "despicable," and derided the Muslim faith. He also pledged to take to social media to share a photo of the sign.

"I am completely shocked by that sign out in front of your church — that you are wishing people who subscribe to a faith that is not only godless but pagan in front of your church, aligning it with the name of Christ," he said. "It is unbelievable that you would welcome them … and wish them a blessed Ramadan."

He continued, "Are you sick? Is there something wrong with you?"

The school board member reportedly made good on his promise to post the picture on social media, including the church's phone number as well — an apparent act that led to a slew of frustrated phone calls.

But Jansen later reversed course, apologized for his voicemail, and accepted an invitation to visit the Hadee Mosque on Friday, where he listened to speakers and adherents discuss their faith.

In a June 20 tweet, Jansen wrote, "Jesus died for hardline Islamist just like he did me. I do apologize for venting to the church. I was out of line."

Following that apology, the Rev. Chris Rodkey, pastor of St. Paul's United Church of Christ, posted a message to his Facebook page saying that the church would not be taking media requests, and seemingly offered up some forgiveness.

"Forgiveness," he wrote. "Forgiveness which comes from the same spirit of neighborliness for those of different faiths."

In an interview published on the United Church of Christ's website, Rodkey said that he never expected to see so much controversy stem from the sign.

"When I put the sign up, I didn't think anything of it other than it being a thoughtful thing to do," he said. "My basic motivation remains the same: I want to show love to my Muslim neighbors, I want my Muslim neighbors and those of other faiths to see St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Dallastown to be a beacon of hope for this community."

Rodkey continued, "And in doing so I wish to give a voice to the voiceless and expose the political hypocrisy which oppresses our neighbors."

As for Jansen, he told Islamic adherents at the Hadee Mosque on Friday that his initial comments about the message were merely a "knee-jerk reaction," and that he was sorry, the Associated Press reported.

"I don't mean to minimize the gravity of what I said, but essentially it's just that, being feisty and trying to start a conversation and an argument, that's just who I am," Jansen said.

The school board member didn't merely listen and learn about the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community. He also later ate a Ramadan meal with the group, with some of those involved telling media that the interaction was overwhelmingly positive. Jansen, too, seemed to enjoy the experience.

"I thought it was informative and enlightening," Jansen told the Associated Press after the visit. "This sect that is inside Islam is peaceful. … This is a group of people that has become an integral part of society."

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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