for Chicago Tribune on Oct. 25, 2008
Calling today's organized religion a failure, the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan on Sunday urged a "new beginning" during the rededication ceremony for a renovated mosque on Chicago's South Side.
"Religion as it is being preached and practiced is a failure," said a lively and passionate Farrakhan, 75, during remarks that lasted an hour and 45 minutes at the Mosque Maryam, the national headquarters of the Nation of Islam.
His comments were made to about 2,500 Nation of Islam members and guests in the mosque, which has undergone massive renovations, and 5,000 more people watching TV screens in huge tents on the grounds outside.
"Are Muhammad and Jesus enemies?" Farrakhan asked. "Why, then, are we?"
For the thousands lined up outside the mosque and others who watched the ceremony streamed live on the Internet, it was a rare glimpse at the inner workings of the Nation of Islam.
Last month, Farrakhan made brief comments at the funeral of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, the son of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
In the past, Farrakhan has caused outrage for controversial comments that included anti-Semitic statements. But in recent years he has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone.
In February, however, he became a lightning rod during the Democratic presidential primary by praising candidate Sen. Barack Obama as the only hope for healing the nation's racial divisions. Obama distanced himself from Farrakhan, saying he did not seek the Nation of Islam leader's support.
On Sunday, Farrakhan did not mention the Illinois senator by name, noting the presidential election only once during his remarks by saying that it, too, is about change.
Besides religious leaders of many faiths, hundreds of other visitors were invited by Nation of Islam members to attend the ceremony. They passed through tight security before entering the mosque but were greeted with friendly smiles by Nation of Islam members, who genially answered questions.
"The mosque has always been a positive thing for the community, culturally," said Shelton Oliver, 38, as he waited in line. "It's been good for the neighborhood in trying to stop violence and gangs. It's all positive."
Shelton said he is Christian but appreciates the new era of openness toward outsiders that Sunday's ceremony represented.
Looking around the refurbished mosque, with its gold inlays and marble accents, Farrakhan said, "If we don't make beautiful people to come out of the building, all of this means nothing."