26/11 MUMBAI TERROR ATTACK'S AMERICAN SURVIVOR CONVERTS TO ISLAM
Trauma leads Del. man on journey of faith
Terror-attack survivor becomes student of Islam
WILMINGTON-- After surviving a terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, 10 months ago, when armed men targeted westerners in two five-star hotels, Greenville resident Dennis O'Brien did not turn to hate.
Instead, he sought to understand the root faith the people behind the attacks claimed to practice and discovered it had been twisted by the gunmen.
Eventually, he came to embrace it.
On Sunday, standing before a crowd of thousands, following prayers to mark the end of Ramadan, O'Brien, a Catholic, embraced Islam in a testimony of faith called Shahada, where he publically declared that there was only one God and the Prophet Muhammad is his last messenger and servant.
O'Brien, who heads up the education committee of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Wilmington, said the move was a surprise, even to him.
But said he was at peace with it.
"Today I feel free of sin," he said.
After several months of studies and asking questions of Muslim friends and associates, "I feel comfort in Islam," he said.
O'Brien said he wanted to express solidarity with Muslims, even though extremists who say they practice the faith "tried to kill me."
Pastor John F. McGinley, of St. Anthony's, said Sunday he had not heard of O'Brien's embrace of Islam.
McGinley said he knows O'Brien is inquisitive and has expressed concern about the young men involved in the Mumbai attacks.
He would not say if the declaration of another faith would affect O'Brien's position at the church, noting he had not spoken to him about Sunday's events.
"I think this is part of his journey of faith and we can work with that," McGinley said.
Indeed, while others called it a conversion, O'Brien said he is not abandoning Christianity or Catholicism. He said he would not disgrace his family by disavowing what he was raised to believe and what they believe in.
He said he sees Sunday's declaration as a continuation or extension of his beliefs, noting how elements of Christianity and Judaism are a part of the Islamic faith.
He said he hopes to continue his work with the Catholic Church, even as he plans to regularly attend weekly Muslim prayers.
Asked what he will say when asked about his faith, he said he will now answer that he is "a student of Islam."
He said he did not consider himself to be entirely Muslim. "I'm a work in progress," he said.
While most Muslims believe Jesus Christ was a great man and a prophet of God, they do not believe he was the son of God as Christians do. O'Brien said he still believes in Christ, that he ascended into heaven and will return one day.
He said he prayed a great deal about the recent move and Saturday was a day of lengthy contemplation.
He said his path to Islam started Nov. 26, 2008, in room 343 of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel in Mumbai when he heard gunshots.
O'Brien was there with fellow Delawarean C. Rich Diffenderffer, on business.
The two later said skipping dessert that night may have saved their lives.
Instead of remaining in the restaurant, O'Brien retired to his room and Diffenderffer went to the business center.
Minutes later, armed militants stormed the hotel, throwing grenades and spraying bullets.
By the end of the 60-hour assault, at least 170 were dead.
O'Brien said he peered out his door at one point and saw three of the attackers carrying assault rifles, all shouted as they passed.
While O'Brien, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, briefly entertained the notion of leaving his door open and attempting to disarm any gunman who tried to enter his room, he decided to bolt his door and push a couch in front of it.
Later, his room began to fill with smoke and he tried to make a run for it but was turned back by a wall of fire. He was rescued by firefighters with a ladder.
Diffenderffer, who was on the fifth floor, was rescued with a cherry picker.
While O'Brien cites that night as the start of his journey, he said it was not until a month later that he seriously started to consider "joining the Muslim movement" after he read the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
That was followed by about six months of study, and questions.
"I was brought up Christian and taught when someone attacks you, you have to love them," he said. "What I discovered as I investigated Islam ... I became enamored with the faith and the people I met."
He credited business partner, Ahmad Amer, a Muslim, with guiding him on his current path.
On Sunday, O'Brien was one of the last to leave the room where prayers had been held -- the first full Muslim prayer service O'Brien has attended. He was besieged by well-wishers who shook his hand and welcomed him to the community.
As he departed, he said he found Islam to be "a community of men who have integrity and I want to stand with these men of integrity."