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Idaho lawmaker apologizes to Muslim congressman

WASHINGTON — Idaho Rep. Bill Sali has apologized to the nation's first Muslim congressman, whose election Sali deemed in an interview as "not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.’’

The Idaho Republican has exchanged conciliatory e-mails with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who became the first Muslim in Congress last year. Both Sali and Ellison were elected in 2006.

Ellison was out of the country, so Sali was unable to call him, said Sali’s spokesman, Wayne Hoffman. Instead, he sent an e-mail and the two exchanged correspondence that was "very pleasant and cordial in nature," Hoffman said.

"He was hopeful that Congressman Ellison understands he meant no disrespect or harm from his comment, and that he hoped that he would meet with him when he returned to Washington, D.C.,’’ Hoffman said.

Sali’s comments were first reported on a Christian-themed website, American Family News Network. His interview was then picked up by liberal bloggers who disagreed with what Sali said about Ellison -- as well as what he said about a Hindu prayer opening the U.S. Senate.

The comments Sali made in the interview took on a life of their own, Hoffman said, with people "trying to twist it and spin it into something that is horrible. What we have now is bloggers quoting bloggers who are quoting other bloggers.’’

Ellison’s spokesman said that his boss understands that people sometimes misspeak or say the wrong thing, or don’t make their intent as clear as they want to.

"He doesn’t take these things personally,’’ said Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert. "People have a bad day, they choose poorly chosen words … he just simply doesn’t choose to take any of that personally.’’

Sali’s spokesman said that his boss acknowledges that he may have been inarticulate in how he said what he said, and that the truncated interview didn’t cover the full range of his comment.

But Sali makes no apologies for the general thrust of the content. He firmly believes that Christianity is a “pillar of our freedom,” Hoffman said.

"What he was trying to say, is that he’s a Christian and that he believes this nation was founded on Christian principles and that it’s important to embrace those principles,’’ Hoffman said. “The congressman is a very strong believer in freedom of religion. The founding fathers used Scripture as a reference in devising the type of government we have today.’’

Ellison took a ceremonial oath of office using a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson. In interviews at the time, he said he chose the Koran from the Library of Congress because “it showed that a visionary like Jefferson believed that wisdom could be gleaned from many sources.”

Both the Idaho Democratic Party and Sali’s 2008 Democratic opponent, Bill Grant, have capitalized on the hubbub in the blogosphere.

Democratic Party Chairman Richard Stallings called on Sali to either apologize or resign, and Grant wrote Ellison a letter calling his opponent’s comments "thoughtless, uninformed, and inappropriate.’’

“We here in Idaho do cherish religious freedom, both yours and ours,’’ Grant wrote. "And, we do applaud anyone who stands up for both peace and freedom, as I know you do.’’

Jauert said that Ellison has developed a thick skin about what people say and write about him – although he does get the occasional letter that is so hateful they turn them over to the Capitol Police.

"I think his view is, he chooses not to empower them. If you respond to some comment that’s less than insightful, you power them by giving them some standing," Ellison's spokesman said.

Although they’re on friendly terms, Ellison doesn’t share Sali’s opinions, Jauert said, and the two freshmen congressman may just have to agree to disagree.

"Certainly he disagrees with him,’’ Jauert said. "Diversity has always been one of the strong points of our country.’’