How the Synagogue Hostage Crisis Changed the DNA of Colleyville, Texas

As Congregation Beth Israel reopens, interfaith efforts deepen and houses of worship intensify security measures, adapting to “a more violent world.”

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good,” displayed on Pleasant Run Baptist Church’s marquee - across the street from Congregation Beth Israel. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

COLLEYVILLE, Texas – On Jan. 15, Colleyville, a small suburb just miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, was thrust into the national spotlight as a gunman, armed with a pistol, took four people hostage for 11 hours in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. All four hostages escaped unharmed before the suspect was shot, authorities said. The FBI labeled the incident as a terrorist act and hate crime.

But this acutely religious North Texas town with 28 houses of worship in its 13 square miles, did not retreat in fear and suspicion. Instead, it reconceived of the terror attack as a beacon of hope. Since the live-streamed standoff, religious leaders in Colleyville mobilized to ensure the safety of their believers and buttress the area’s robust interfaith system.

After nearly three months, the synagogue, which has been closed as a crime scene, is reopened to its 150 members on April 9. Since the incident, the congregation was hosted by the First United Methodist Church of Colleyville, one mile away. Now that it is back in its home, Congregation Beth Israel will have a police presence at every event. For Colleyville’s Jewish believers like Howard Rosenthal, former president of the Beth Israel Congregation, restarting services in the synagogue with reinstalled bulletproof windows feels like “moving forward.”

The outside gates of Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, which has been closed since Jan. 15, 2022. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

Interfaith activists in Colleyville, which is overwhelmingly comprised of Christians, said they want to set the record straight, referring to what they call the town’s mischaracterization in national press outlets. The scandals plaguing Dallas-Fort Worth have garnered media attention after the 2021 Capitol insurrection (which involved residents from DFW) and last year’s Critical Race Theory controversies at Colleyville public schools. Despite North Texas stereotypes, 21 religious community groups have been building interfaith bridges for four years under the umbrella of Peace Together, which was founded after racial and religious tensions unleashed at a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, N.C.

“We will have a safe, loving and committed community so we can go forward and not focus on the past,” said Rosenthal.

Having lived in DFW for 19 years, Rosenthal leads Peace Together and organized interfaith healing ceremonies after Jan. 15. Rosenthal was teary-eyed while recalling how interfaith leaders rushed in to help during and after the crisis.

As Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel wrote in The New York Times:

“My congregation and I received an outpouring of love and support from strangers. If we begin with that love of the stranger, but offer it not in response to violence, but encouraged by empathy, we might just change our world.”

Everyone from Muslims to Catholics to Mormons stepped up. The Colleyville Texas Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a member of Peace Together, has a deep respect for people who worship in different ways because Mormons have a history of persecution, said Leslie Horn, the Media Specialist at the church. Horn described Jan. 15 as a defining violation for her church. Still, the subsequent press coverage “missed a lot of the good,” she said.

Mormon worshippers Leslie Horn (left) and Nancy Coplen (right) discuss their involvement in interfaith events in the Colleyville Texas Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

“In Texas, there tends to be this belief that we aren't diverse in thought, people and faiths,” Horn said. “But if you've spent any time living here, you quickly realize that’s not true. If you know anything about interfaith work, you know Colleyville is a leader.”

Horn said she could not fathom the juxtaposition of savagery in a sacred space. Horn, like so many religious observers in Colleyville, found herself in disbelief and kept asking herself, “Why Colleyville?”

Rev. Higgins gives a tour of the room where Good Shepherd hosted reporters from all over the country on Jan. 15. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

Rev. Michael Higgins, the senior priest at Good Shepherd Colleyville, shared Horn’s shock. Even though the standoff was “hectic and surreal,” Good Shepherd Colleyville jumped into action. For ten hours during the standoff, Higgins’ church, just one block away from the synagogue, hosted the press, the four spouses of the hostages and the local police. After the dust settled, Good Shepherd continues to seriously consider beefing up its security measures, said Higgins. Still, he refused to cancel Sunday services the next day, opting to pray for the town.

Rev. Higgins displays a magazine article in which he and other interfaith leaders were featured. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

“Despite all the evidence to the contrary, God loves us,” Higgins said.

It is unfortunate that an event like this would be the catalyst for the country to be introduced to Colleyville. But January 15, Higgins said, was an immediate rallying of all faith traditions, which brought to light the reality of the tight community in Colleyville. Higgins has led the interfaith alliance in Colleyville since 2020.

“We were just trying to be of service,” Higgins said. “This shouldn't be special.”

Colleyville Masjid’s security and surveillance system, which increased after Jan. 15. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

Abdul Rashid Khan, a founding member of Colleyville Masjid, said his house of worship is no stranger to the eerie sensation of looming danger. His gated mosque has had security since Sept. 11, 2001, and reactively increased its surveillance measures since Jan. 15. Khan, a friend to hostage Cytron-Walker and participant in interfaith meetings, said he could easily imagine a similar crime happening in his mosque. To cope and maintain hope, Khan has thrown himself into interfaith work.

“Our prophet Mohammed used to visit other religious spaces so that he could set an example of how his faith should be respected,” Khan said. “We follow that example.”

Founding member of Colleyville Masjid Abdul Rashid Khan gives a tour of his prayer room as a worshipper prays. Colleyville, Texas. March 15, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

Katie Newkirk, a pastor at First United Methodist Church of Colleyville, reviewed her church’s safety policy after the “defining moment” of Jan. 15, installing new security systems and implementing training sessions for church staff. Still, she said Colleyville’s transformation in the past few months is twinged with optimism as local comradery has outshone religious differences.

Pastor Katie Newkirk describes her sermon on peace, which she gave during the Sunday service the day after the standoff. Colleyville, Texas. April 3, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

“It’s been a beautiful time to come together,” Newkirk said. “I don’t think God causes bad things to happen, but God brings good outcomes from messed up situations.”

A police car parked outside First United Methodist Church of Colleyville. Colleyville, Texas. April 3, 2022. Riley Farrell for Covering Religion.

As Ukrainian Refugees Arrive, Hungary Remembers its History

BUDAPEST-- On a cold spring day, before the trees began to bud, Hungarian journalist Kinga Rajvak invites us into her apartment in the old Jewish Quarter of Budapest. The building stands tall, its bright green door contrasting the light gray of the early morning sky. 

Right across from her wood dining room table sits a palm plant basking in the sun. It hides a discolored brick window frame. Rajvak said, “this dent right here was from a Russian bomb, during the 1954 uprising.” 

The combination between past and present haunts Hungary. Talking about current events tends to lead into a comparison of a similar event from one of the country’s many dark chapters of its long history. 

Hungary made headlines for its exclusionary and anti-Muslim refugee laws during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Today, Ukrainian refugees receive very different treatment, though the laws remain the same. The common factor in these crises is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. 

On April 3, Orbán won his fourth consecutive term as prime minister, according to election results. Much of his party’s platform consists of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and far-right ideals that are similar to legislation currently introduced and passed in Texas and Florida. Orbán describes his governing style as “illiberal democracy,” and is critical of Western values. He is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking a pro-Russian stance on the war in Ukraine.

This relationship ratcheted up recent tensions in Budapest. Religious non-profits including Caritas, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee all helped refugees when Orbán’s government would not. As the April election drew nearer, the relief efforts were folded into a joint charity council that now has complete government oversight.

Many religious leaders involved in Ukrainian relief efforts are furious about Putin’s war and Orbán’s support for it. However, they must hold their tongue out of fear of government retaliation. They fear that they will lose whatever government backing that they get for the relief efforts. 

The political split with the government, however, does not inhibit the work of the religious nonprofits, such as the JCC Budapest, according to the agency’s director, Marcel Kenesei. Instead, he said that the JCC focuses on its humanitarian efforts rather than on Orbán's agenda. Kenesei said the majority of the Ukrainian refugees that his agency has helped decided not to stay in Hungary long-term but instead emigrate to Israel. 

“A lot of the people who live in Ukraine and belong to the Jewish community, and decide to leave the country, they are going to end up in Israel because a lot of the Jews have either Israeli citizenship or they are eligible to apply,” Kenesei said. “To get Israeli citizenship, that was an obvious choice for a lot of people.” 

For Lyubov and her 4 year-old daughter, Daniel, who withheld their surnames for privacy, the ultimate goal is to get to Israel, she said sitting in the main room of the JCC, as her daughter drew in the seat next to her. 

“So like all the people who came here, we need to spend some time here, then go to Israel because we are Jewish,” Lyubov said.  “It takes somebody two weeks, maybe three weeks to make these documents.” 

Lyubov and Daniel have no documents with them other than their passports. They fled Bucha just days before an alleged massacre was revealed to the world through drone footage obtained by the British government. Since Lyubov did not have documentation, they could only travel by train or bus. At first, she said she took Daniel to a border town in Poland. Once they arrived, she said she immediately left for Hungary because there were too many Ukrainians and not enough resources for her daughter and her. But, Budapest was never going to be a final destination for them. 

“As far as I know, Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, is more loyal to Russians than other prime ministers of other countries, and I don’t know which political view there will be in Hungary with him in power,” she said. “So, I would like to move to the place where we know for sure they defend us and want to stay on our side.”

Lyubov looked down at Daniel who was fussing with her red glasses and rubbing her eyes. As she was climbing into her mother’s lap, she gave Lyubov her stuffed rabbit to hold for her. Lyubov looked into the animal's black beaded eyes and said, “our bunny is with us.” 

Engraving God Upon the Heart


The act of engraving is deliberate, repetitive, and slow. It takes time to form even a crude surface outline, to say nothing of making it presentable, or even beautiful. You must make the same motion over, and over, and over (and over) again, patiently taking away a small piece of material each time. It becomes trance-like. But you must remain focused on the task, and not be robotic in your actions. No matter when you finish, there is the feeling that you can refine it, sharpen the image, remove some abstraction from your finished artwork.

The act of engraving the name of God upon your heart is no different to the Sufi.

Sufism is a branch of Islam that emphasizes spirituality and mysticism. Having a close and loving relationship with the Almighty is one of the chief goals of the Sufi, beyond just slavishly following the divine laws set forth in the holy books. It is a deliberate act to embrace Him. 

The Naqshbandi Order of Sufism derives its name from two Farsi words, first “to engrave” (naqsh) and then to form a bond “bandi.” According to Madani Sheikh, a devotee of The Most Distinguished Naqshbandi Sufi Order of New York and New Jersey, this refers to carving the name of God upon the heart of the Sufi while forming bonds back to their spiritual teachers (called Mawlana, “Our Master”). 

In order to carve the name of God onto their hearts, Sufis sing chants and meditate upon the words they hear, over and over and over again. One of the hymns they sing, The Opening Qasida, has 24 verses that each begin with “Yā Rabbi sallī ‘alā Muhammad” (“O Lord, bestow blessings upon Muhammad”). Another is 64 verses long, and takes over 10 minutes to sing. 

A unique part of the Sufi worship is done towards the end of the service, after the night prayers are finished. Worshippers form a ring on the rugs they have carefully laid out on the floors, facing each other. As with all other parts of the service, the women and men sit separately. The faithful close their eyes, cross their legs, and place their open hands upon their knees, palms facing upwards. They wait silently, patiently, for their leader, Shaykh Diomande Soulieyman, to begin the chants.

At Soulieyman’s direction, Sheikh stood up, walked over to the light panel, and darkened the room. Only a few lights in the massive space were left on, just enough to illuminate the exits. The Sufis were shrouded by the darkness. 

Soulieyman began to sing. He sung minutes-long verses that repeated four or five times apiece, his tone rising and falling. In the dim light, the Sufis swayed gently in time to his melodies. As the Shaykh sung into his microphone, connected to a powerful sound system, his followers could hardly be heard singing alongside. On the rare occasion he takes a breath though, their voices come through clear and harmonious. 

The air of the darkened room was filled with their meditative chants. It did not matter that there were only 30 Sufis here, nor that they had to worship in an Episcopal Church on 28th Street because they had no Mosque of their own. It did not matter. For the moment, this was not a place of pulpits and altars, not one of a small community in a big city, not even one of sight. This was a place for God. 

After 45 minutes, the chants slowly faded out with a long, mournful note. Sheikh quietly rose again and turned on the lights, which felt almost jarring after the extended trance of the meditation. The worshipers took each cupped their hands and brought them to their face as if splashing themselves with water. They had received God’s blessings through their meditation, and were spreading His gift over their skin.

Soulieyman delivered a brief sermon, less than 10 minutes long, and everyone rose from their seated position. The service was over, and now it was time to share a meal. 

They shared kabobs and lentil soup with lamb, drank a pineapple-ginger juice popular in West Africa, and chatted about life. They hadn’t been able to meet the week prior due to a snowstorm, and a few of them commented on how pronounced the absence felt after just a week. After such a powerful, transcendental experience in the dark, it’s hard to imagine missing even one service. The engraving on their hearts was made a little deeper that evening.

No Compromise In Obedience

Ask one million people how they feel about COVID-19 lockdown measures, you will get 1 million strong opinions. Ask a Sufi what they think about lockdown, and you will get a reserved and resigned response. 

“Obey Allah, obey the Holly Prophet Muhammad, and obey those who are authorities. This is the basis of our life.” This is the guidance of Shaykh Diomande Suleyman, leader of The Most Distinguished Naqshbandi Sufi Order in New York/New Jersey. “Those authorities can be male; they can be female. They can be president, they can be governor, they can be a health director, a police officer, a supervisor – whoever is in that position of authority, you must obey that person.”

Obedience is a key part of being a Muslim and Sufis have raised this attribute to something of an art form. In the four stages of Sufism, the first two stages – sharia, the religious laws, and tariqah, the inner mystical path – govern how to live your life outward and inward to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Their literal translations from Arabic both refer to a type of pathway that must be followed in order to achieve the higher stages of truth and knowledge. Following the rules is foundational to Sufi spirituality.

According to Suleyman, you cannot pick and choose who you listen to and which rules you will follow. When the rules from different sources of authority conflict, it is the duty of the faithful to try and make them work together as best as possible. You can draw from the Quran, Islamic Scholars, government guidelines, and Allah himself when trying to arrive at the best compromise, but the rules must be followed.

Suleyman made it clear why following the rules, all the rules, is so important, especially in a time of pandemic. “All life is sacred. You have to save a life! So, by not coming to worship, it’s not something you choose or you like. Because God says life is sacred, we have to save it. You save lives by respecting the restrictions the authorities put in place.” 

Still, there is an element of worship that cannot be captured at home, and no amount of justifying why a rule was put in place can overcome the sense of loss that follows. Zoom meetings are fine for passing a sermon, and the musical poetry of the Qasidas can be found on any platform that allows audio uploads. It’s ok – but it cannot capture the power of a zikar meditation in the dark, surrounded by the voices of other practitioners. You cannot pass the warmth of a shared meal through a screen as easily as you could a plate of food to a person beside you. Worship is about community, and the digital realm can only take you so far into the spiritual realm.

The Most Distinguished Naqshbandi Sufi Order had to abandon in-person worship in March of 2020, just like most other houses of worship around the United States. . Despite the yearning for their shared community, the members dutifully stayed apart for 15 months until the authorities told them they could return. They masked and sanitized as they were told, and refrained from shaking hands, an important part of establishing a connection to each other. Now, nine months later, they were able to worship with few restrictions. They could even share a meal again. 

Speaking privately, Suleyman explained why he didn’t mind the lack of physical connection at first. “If you wear a nice perfume, and I sit near you for one hour, what happens? I will smell like it! When we sit together, the goodness is like a contagious disease. It jumps from one person to another person.” His measured and steady voice did not waiver as he made the analogy, but the barest hint of wry smile crossed his face as he let the comparison sink in before moving on. “One good person in the room means the whole group gains from that individual.”

As restrictions begin to ease in New York, the Sufis allow themselves to become closer physically and spiritually once more. Whether the rules change again or the path ahead becomes unclear, they know to accept and obey what they are told. For now, they revel in the spread of the spirit while the spread of COVID dies down.

Is online dating a more permissible option for Muslims?

Is online dating a more permissible option for Muslims?

Ammal Hassan

A user opens up the MuzMatch app. (Photo/Ammal Hassan)

The Muslim dating app Muzmatch has one of the boldest taglines in the world of online dating: “Muslims don't date – they marry.”

In one breath the statement encompases the views of Musim scholars’ Islamic interpretation of dating: unless it is done the right way, it is haram–forbidden by Islamic law.

With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, Muzmatch saw a massive surge in use, with a 45% increase in user downloads globally within the week of March 15 to March 22 2020. The app can be argued to have shown young Muslims a more halal–or permitted_way to form romantic connections online rather than in person. However, with cities opening up as COVID infection rates subside and populations receive their vaccines, will young Muslims continue meeting each other online?

That is the question that many Muslims are asking but the answer is not at all clear. It turns out that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the new dating technology. Some say that these apps are certainly more halal because of the way in which they limit physical contact, some say there are still ways to sin through the usage of the app.

Most agree, however, that the apps are certainly convenient. How permissible they are, ultimately all comes down to the intention of users.

Fahmida Rashid is a Long Island native who self describes as a “kind of quirky, weird person.” She believes her personality and unique sense of humor do not come across as well online as they do in person. But the pandemic forced her to limit her social interactions, so she took a chance on meeting a partner through dating apps like Muzmatch.

Now though, she and many others prefer to revert back to dating in person.

“I think I do prefer dating in person – have I done that before, or have experience with that? That's probably a no,” Rashid, 27, said, “[but] like going to the mosque, or like going to events, going for yoga, going to things I like and just trying to meet people that way, so that there's at least a commonality.”

In Islam, modern, Western definitions of dating should not exist. Islamic rules dictate a man and a woman should not be left alone for fear of committing physical sin. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad once said “whenever a man is alone with a woman, Satan is the third among them." Therefore, instead of modern ideas of dating, Islam encourages “dating” as a chaste, focused courtship with the purpose of marriage, which is not just between two people, but also with their families involved.

According to Islamic teachings, that is what should exist, however, despite the rulings, many Muslims have still dated alone, without the involvement of families and not always with the purpose of marriage. Apps like Muzmatch have tried to change this and create a more acceptable way for Muslims to date and marry.

Through the Muzmatch nature of being online, its marriage-focused marketing enables couples to add a third person to their private chat, the app caters to three important islamic rules around dating:

  1. It must always be done with the purposes of marriage.
  2. A mahram or chaperone must be present while a man and a woman get to know each other for marriage.
  3. By being online men and women do not risk the chance of pre-marital sexual relations.

Salams (formerly Minder) is another Muslim dating apps that has halal-friendly features such as a “stealth” mode where a user can pick who sees their profile. Both apps offer the option to have your photos blurred in an effort to guard modesty, a virtue that is highly encouraged in Islam. In effect, these newer Muslim dating apps create an experience more in line with Islamic practices, and Muzmatch founder Shahzad Younas agrees.

“The app is quite unashamedly, for Muslims looking to find a life partner, you know, and it's quite unashamedly not if you're just looking to date or mess around.” said Younas. “We make it quite clear, even when you build up your profile, of what isn't acceptable.”

While the experience may be close to Islam, the reality for many Muslims can be quite different.
“I may be a cynic, but I think it's a little bit naive to think that it makes [dating] more halal because in my experience, it hasn't,” said Rashid.

This is not the case for all Muslims who began using dating apps during the pandemic. Halima Aweis, a Muslim woman from Rochester, whose videos on her experiences using dating apps like Muzmatch and Salams, are popular on Tik Tok amongst many other young Muslims. For Aweis, the pandemic showed her a more halal and convenient way to date, especially with long-distance, which she prefers. Aweis says that she intends to stick to Muslim dating apps even as New York opens up from pandemic restrictions.

“Because of not being able to be around each other in person for long periods of time, the fact that the vast majority of your communication is virtual, whether it's on FaceTime or on the phone, and that you're kind of limited because of proximity because your ‘x thousand’ miles away, you're not given the opportunity to do lots of free mixing and engage in things that like aren't permissible,” she said.

The benefit of these apps, as the six people interviewed for this story have agreed, is that it is certainly a convenient way to meet potential partners. Chastity McFadden, a Muslim woman who both converted to Islam and tried out Muslim dating apps during the pandemic, found that the apps broadened her reach.

“I think what apps could do is help you date outside of your small circle, which tends to be like, one culture, one area, one idea of what Islam is and sometimes that [is hard to do] in your space, so finding people that don't exist in that space might make it actually easier,” said McFadden.

The apps certainly do their best to try to create a halal environment, but at the end of the day, it all ultimately comes down to the intent of users – a point that Younas was sure to make.

Farwah Sheikh, a nutritionist and host of Spill the Chai podcast, which discusses dating as a Muslim, adds onto this by explaining that connecting on dating apps still holds some haram elements as they are based off of physical attraction, but what comes of that is the intention of users.

“You are swiping based off of someone's aesthetic, like right off of their physical appearance, because you're attracted to them to some extent and then the conversation can lead to a place where when you do meet you do want to become physical because you've built up that [attraction],” said Sheikh, “or, it really just eliminates that physical factor [of meeting] and you just get to know someone and then you know you move from there – I think it's the intention of the person, of how they're going in talking to somebody.”

Though some may argue that dating online is still a much more innocent option than dating in-person because of the reduced risk to physically sin, Salwa Ameen a Muslim marriage life coach said that dating digital does not actually reduce the risk of sinning. Conversation on the app may still be inappropriate, including the exchange of elicit photos.

Because of the subjective nature of human intention, despite the apps’ purposes to create a more halal environment for dating, many Muslims, particularly women, have had to deal with inappropriate advances. Because of this they agree with Rashid’s point of view.

Sanjida Rashid, who is the twin-sister to Fahima and has used several Muslim dating apps, spoke about how her own personal experiences with inappropriate behavior on the apps is what makes her prefer prefer dating in person.

“In person I feel that there's still a level of decorum, but online, people feel brave enough to say whatever they want,” Rashid, 27, said. “I had one guy straight up ask me to send nudes and it’s like I just couldn't even believe I was on a Muslim dating app.”

In addition to this, more features like the option for a chaperone or the option to blur a user’s photos do exist to allow a user to make their experience more halal, however, they are optional.

Rashid also expressed that though the feature of a chaperone was not available to her while she was using the Muslim dating apps, she would not have opted for the feature anyway because for her, privacy is necessary from the beginning.

“I don't know who the chaperone would be, whether it would be my parents or my sister, but I just feel that's weird because when you put a third person in the circle, it changes the dynamics of the communication,” she said.

Further, many Muslims believe that dating in person is the way to go simply because it is the best way to truly know the other person.

“I think the apps have this way of hiding who people fully are and you can’t understand even simple things like if your energies mesh well,” said McFadden. “It’s easier to hide the bad stuff about yourself on an app than it is in person.”

As things stand, many Muslims plan to revert back to dating in-person, however, the convenience of the apps has shown to be beneficial. For that reason Ameen believes that even with more people dating in person, dating online is still here to stay.

“I don't think that seeking a partner online will ever really go away,” said Ameen.