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Seminar explores religious freedom

Persephone Agricola admits she holds some unusual beliefs.

But the substitute teacher in Boston who practices pagan Wiccan rituals says that, ultimately, what she really wants is for everyone to get along.

The 27-year-old knows achieving that dream is difficult in a religious community fraught with distrust, with one faith not quite understanding the other and seemingly even unwilling to try.

So as part of her personal quest for peace, she attended a conference of the International Association for Religious Freedom called Under Siege: Religious Freedom in a Post 9/11 World Jan. 15-17 at Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater.

The first-ever interfaith dialogue event included services, speeches, panel discussions, workshops, lectures, meals, yoga, a concert and a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

People from many backgrounds participated, among them Hindus, Jews and Christians from as far away as England.

About a dozen religious organizations were represented, including Scientologists, Baha'is and Muslims. They discussed religion and terrorism and hate crimes, among other topics.

None of it was easy to listen to.

"Our society has become increasingly complex, not only culturally and racially, but also religiously," said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, pastor of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, during a sermon he preached at Temple B'Nai Israel at the Jan. 16 Sabbath service.

"Encounters between people of very different religious traditions take place in the proximity of our own cities and neighborhoods," he continued.

"How Americans of all faiths begin to engage with one another in shaping a positive pluralism is one of the most important questions our society faces in the years ahead. Pluralism is not simply a problem that threatens the consensus of a religious and moral mainstream but is an extraordinary spiritual and social reality."

He said the existence of radical pluralism is "a fact of life in American society" which cannot be ignored.

"The question we are confronted with as Americans, irrespective of our religious or cultural background, is how will we respond to this fast-growing reality of pluralism?" he said. "How will we treat the "other?' How does our engagement with other religions . . . affect our commitment to our own faiths?"

The conference sought to remedy some of these concerns, but despite Janamanchi's hopes, it was not well attended. Only about 70 people showed up for the activities.

"For me, personally, this was exhausting and depressing," he said at the concluding service. "Like we had prepared a feast and we were the (only people) at the table eating it."

Agricola said she thought it was ironic and disappointing "this kind of thing isn't more of a priority among religious people."

"If (peace) can't happen with religious people, who can it happen with?" she said.

Although she was unhappy with the lack of participants, particularly female panelists, at the conference, Agricola said she "thought it was a really good start."

"I'm really excited this kind of dialogue has begun," said Agricola, who said she plans to become a Unitarian Universalist minister someday. "It is important that we talk about peace and justice."

One highlight of the program was a concert directed by Frank Wells, UUC music director who also conducts the Tampa Bay Concert Choir.

"It was fantastic to see it finally come together," Wells said. "I was concerned the faith communities would say, well, I don't want to be in the same room with those people. But it was the opposite."

The event closed with Hindus, Scientologists and others clasping hands and singing Beethoven's Ode To Joy.

"(People can't) just sit and pray to God for peace," Agricola said. "Because if it were that easy, we'd (already) have world peace. You have to move beyond your church or your temple or your synagogue."

_ Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or

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