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chicagotribune.com >> Local news

On Yom Kippur, man prays as friend's life in balance

By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 2, 2006

When Richard Benkin enters his synagogue Monday to observe the holiest and most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, he will plead for God's mercy on behalf of a friend he has never met.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a Bangladeshi Muslim journalist who invited Benkin to write about Israel from a Jewish point of view, will be tried this month on charges of spying for the Jewish state. The crime is punishable by death in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that concludes the Jewish High Holy Days, faithful Jews fast from food and drink, fill synagogues to seek God's forgiveness and turn their thoughts inward to contemplate how they can improve the world.

Benkin already knows what he must do. He believes Choudhury is innocent and is committed to clearing his colleague's name.

"He was in prison just for standing up for what was right," said Benkin, 54, a member of Temple Chai in Long Grove and a prolific activist for interfaith relations.

"I've often said that fighting for Shoaib, standing up for him, is exactly what we mean when we say, `Never again,'" Benkin said, referring to a Jewish condemnation of the Holocaust. "`Never again' is preventing this from happening to anybody and being courageous to stand up against it."

For more than three years, Benkin's friendship with Choudhury has become a brotherly bond. It started when Choudhury, the editor of an English-language weekly newspaper in Bangladesh, e-mailed Benkin to help him foster a conversation in his country about Israel.

"In the Muslim world there is a tremendous misconception spread by the terrorists and the religious in the mosques," Choudhury said in a telephone interview. "They are told that Christians and Jews are the enemies of Islam. Whenever they are referring to that issue, they are also waving their fingers to Israel as an extremist country persecuting the Muslims."With Choudhury's support, Benkin wrote the first pro-Zionist articles published in Bangladesh. Choudhury in turn condemned Muslim extremism in the Israeli media.

"It was very clear to both of us that there was something genuine here," Benkin said. "This was an incredible opportunity to participate in something special. The fact that this man was going to stand up and do something like that, in what turned out to be a very dangerous environment, only made me admire and love him even more."

The exchange abruptly ended in November 2003. Choudhury was arrested at Dhaka-Zia International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where he was scheduled to deliver a lecture on Muslim-Jewish relations. After several months behind bars, he was charged with sedition, a capital offense in Bangladesh.

"This is absolutely a false allegation," Choudhury said. "I never, ever spy for any country. We work for the betterment of the interfaith."

Benkin immediately began pushing for Choudhury's release, writing letters to politicians, publishing articles and praying daily that his colleague would be freed.

"I took quite seriously Shoaib's call to me," Benkin said. "When you get a cry for help, you give one answer: `What can I do?'"

In January 2005, Benkin's prayers and letters were answered. U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) volunteered to help.

"[Choudhury] is a passionate public advocate for dialogue with Israel," Kirk said in an interview last week. "With near biblical certainty, I feel he has no official contact with the Israeli government."

Kirk arranged a meeting with Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury, who agreed to help secure the jailed journalist's release on bail and try to get the charges dropped.

After 17 months in jail, Choudhury was released. But a judge ruled that his case would proceed to trial.

"Courts are very independent in Bangladesh," the ambassador said in a telephone interview. "But the government is not pursuing the case very strongly."

Benkin was devastated but refused to surrender. In the days leading up to the High Holy Days, he focused on how he could save his friend.

"I entered the temple quite literally with a heavy heart," he said of the first night of services. "One thing that I took away was that Shoaib and I should embrace the struggle. If we struggle against it and we succeed, we're going to embolden other people to do the same."

This weekend, Benkin prepared for the Day of Atonement with the ritual of Taschlich, a ceremony of casting bread into water, as if casting away sins for a fresh start to the new year.

Benkin imbued each piece of bread with a prayer for a loved one. He thought of Choudhury as he tossed a crumb into the creek below.

"I feel that God has given me a tremendous responsibility," he said. "I was asking God for the strength and judgment to be equal to the task. A man's life could be hanging in the balance."

Choudhury said he can feel those prayers. He trusts that Benkin will not let him down.

"He is not only my brother, he is my teacher, my great philosopher," Choudhury said.

Even when family members looked the other way, Choudhury said, "Dr. Richard Benkin ... he never, ever abandoned us."



Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune

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