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Interfaith movement gains new strength

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This is the first in a series of reports that will look at new efforts — driven largely by American faith leaders — to bridge old divisions among the nation's and the world's believers.

NEW YORK | When FaithHouse Manhattan has its twice-monthly interfaith gatherings, the guest list is a carnival of religious belief and creed.

An Islamic Sufi dervish greets you at the door, but the program director, an Episcopalian, makes the announcements. A rabbi, a female Muslim and a Seventh-day Adventist share leadership of the meeting.

The night's program at FaithHouse, in a posh office just off Fifth Avenue, was the Jewish holiday of Purim. Oranges, nuts, apricots and hamentaschen, a Jewish holiday pastry, were offered as snacks. Participants put on costumes to act out the biblical story of Esther.

"People who have a hunger for religious experience can have a taste of it here," said Samir Selmanovic, the Adventist co-leader. Born in Croatia to a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, he helped found FaithHouse 18 months ago. Then he wrote a book, "It's All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian," on the plethora of religions that Americans are increasingly sampling.

FaithHouse is probably the only multireligious church in the country, but its jumble of faiths and practices is becoming less unusual in today's religious marketplace.

In a world in which sectarian divisions fuel some of the most violent and dangerous confrontations, the interfaith movement — once thought as irrelevant — has emerged as a force in American religion like never before.

The movement has made for some unlikely bedfellows, such as an emerging think tank for Jews and Mormons in Salt Lake City.

It involves unlikely alliances, such as when one of the most conservative Christian pro-life groups staged a news conference on Capitol Hill in September applauding a Muslim prayer service on the Mall.

It involves unlikely allies, such as leading Christian "emergent" leader Brian McLaren, who was roundly criticized during Ramadan last year when he fasted the entire month out of solidarity with Muslims.

It involves unlikely support, such as that offered by the Obama White House, which has identified interfaith work as a public policy goal. President Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has an "interreligious dialogue and cooperation" task force that includes a female Hindu priest, an Orthodox Jewish layman, a female Muslim pollster, a nondenominational evangelical Christian pastor, a pastor and black civil rights leader, and a Muslim youth worker.

It benefits from some unlikely backing. Some of the biggest movers and shakers in the interfaith movement are governments in Muslim states: Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.

Heads — or former heads — of state are likewise involved. Soon after British Prime Minister Tony Blair retired, he founded an interfaith foundation in London to "promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world."

Not since 1950, when the National Council of Churches was founded, has this much energy been aimed toward alliances across religious barriers.

Some say the lessening of fervor among evangelicals — the Southern Baptists, for instance, have been losing members several years in a row — is responsible.

Others say the presence of the first U.S. president whose father was a Muslim is what's spurred interest.

Others point to Sept. 11, 2001, a bolt out of the blue that was a wake-up call to Islamic leaders around the world.

"There has been a huge outpouring of interfaith effort since Sept. 11," said Padraic O'Hare, director of the Center for Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. "This is not a luxury. It's a necessity, whether there is a God or not."

His center added the word "Muslim" to its title in October 2008, a sign that the nation is evolving from a Judeo-Christian society to a society based on the three major Abrahamic religions.

Many say natural disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in January, have thrown together disparate religious charities like never before.

Many point out that it's not American Christians but minority religious groups — Muslims, Mormons and Jews — who are providing the energy and creativity for this movement.

Whatever the reason or cause, people are talking to other people like never before.

Jews, Muslims in Potomac

One of the newest interfaith initiatives is the annual "twinning" of synagogues and mosques, an effort sponsored by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding to build bonds between Jews and Muslims. About 100 mosques and synagogues in North America and Europe "twinned" in November, double the amount that participated in the first Weekend of Twinning in 2008.

Two local participants were Congregation Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase and the Medina Center in Potomac, which brought together a group of immigrant Muslims and suburban Jews. They agreed to meet on a Sunday afternoon for a combined worship service at a private home that serves as an informal mosque.

As a black velvet banner with Koranic sayings hung over the fireplace mantel, several dozen men sporting yarmulkes and kufis (the round cap that male Muslims wear) sat on the floor. Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Shirat HaNefesh had his arm flung around one of the Islamic worship leaders.

About 75 people turned out for the gathering, which had all the women clustered in the back. The Jewish women grouped themselves awkwardly against a wall and pulled on head scarves while the Muslim women gave them sympathetic smiles.

A speech by Rabbi Serotta suggested that Islamic and Jewish conceptions of God were basically equal.

"We don't understand why God has chosen more than one path for humanity," he told the group. "God created different paths so you'd compete in goodness."

After Saif Qargha, a teacher from Afghanistan, gave a short instruction on the five pillars (basic tenets) of Islam, everyone lined up to pray. At the chant of the muezzin, Muslim and Jew alike dropped to their knees, then touched their heads to the floor in a form of prayer in mosques.

Afterward, the participants shared a rice and chicken dinner.

"This is a good idea," said Musood Rad, a Muslim from Hyderabad, India. "This brings our hearts together."

Daniel Spiro, one of the Jewish participants and a Department of Justice attorney, said such meetings are essential for world peace. He is a co-founder of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington. "In an era where many people are turned off by God, Muslims are some of the most devout lovers of God I've found," he said. "It's like mining for diamonds, and you'll find diamonds in Islam."

Nerve centers

Wherever interfaith activity is happening, a synagogue is bound to be nearby. In Washington, it's the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. On one day, the temple may be hosting classes for gentile women to learn Jewish rituals. The next day, a Muslim iftar service is held to observe Ramadan.

One workshop last fall, staged by Yes We Can: Middle East Peace, brought together several hundred people to Sixth & I. Mazen Faraj, a Palestinian Muslim whose brother and father died at the hands of Israeli soldiers, sat next to Robi Damelin, a Jewish woman whose 28-year-old son was killed by Palestinian snipers.

"We aren't just two kooks coming out of the Middle East with strange ideas," Ms. Damelin told listeners seated in the rose-colored pews. "We want you to leave here with some hope."

Meredith Jacobs, who does family programming at Sixth and I, said many American families are living the interfaith life on the ground. She leads popular classes for gentile women married to Jewish men who wish to learn some basic rituals for the Sabbath and for Jewish holidays.

"It's intermarried families who show up here," she said. "There's nothing else out there in society for them." Bimonthly interfaith dinners at Sixth & I have been packed with guests to the point that Washingtonian magazine features the synagogue's ethnic meal offerings in its Best Bites column.

"This is where the culture is going," said Ms. Jacobs. "This is where American religion is going."

Are Evangelicals buying in?

Evangelical Christians have been more resistant to interfaith dialogue but are slowly climbing on the bandwagon, especially with Muslims. Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has had three such evangelical Christian-Muslim dialogues. The last one, an April 2009 gathering, attracted 30 scholars.

In August, the Rev. Brian McLaren, founder of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville and a leader in the "emergent church" movement among evangelicals, announced on his blog that he and some friends would fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan.

"We are not doing so in order to become Muslims: we are deeply committed Christians," he wrote. "But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them. Just as Jesus, a devout Jew, overcame religious prejudice and learned from a Syrophonecian woman and was inspired by her faith two thousand years ago, we seek to learn from our Muslim sisters and brothers today."

Six months later, he said, the 28-day fast, which involves going without any nourishment during daylight, was "very difficult."

"A few days into it, I remember thinking that I had huge respect for a billion people in the world who do this," he recalled. "It was the first time I had not drunk anything from dawn to dusk."

He kept e-mail contact with two Muslim friends during those four weeks, "which certainly enriched our friendship," he said. "For Christians who are interested in building interfaith relationships, this would be a wonderful step.

"What many Muslims feel about many Christians is a lack of piety and self-discipline," he noted. "When we want to build a bridge, we have to show some good faith."

Seminary courses

Sometimes evangelicals and Muslims come together for a common cause, as happened in September when about 3,000 Muslims showed up on the Mall just west of the Capitol for a Friday afternoon prayer rally. While most evangelical outlets disparaged or ignored the gathering, the National Clergy Council, the Richmond-based Hillside Missions and the Christian Defense Coalition teamed up for a news conference to celebrate it.

"Our whole purpose," said Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, "was to say Christians are not the enemies of Muslims and that the heart of Christ reaches out to all groups. We also want to celebrate the wonderful traditions of America that say no one — regardless of their faith — should be persecuted and harassed by the government."

Numerous Christian groups were invited to participate in the news conference, he added, but none came.

"People make the mistake of thinking interfaith outreach is going to the lowest common denominator," said Kristopher Keating of Hillside Missions, "but it's every person freely worshipping God according to their own traditions."

One of the clergy at the FaithHouse gathering, Rabbi Justus Baird, directs Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for Multifaith Education. He said work with other religions needs to begin at the seminary level, where would-be clergy would be trained on how to interact with members of other faiths. Although some seminaries have put up barriers because of the extra course load, a number of them offer courses in other religions, according to a survey of 150 seminaries completed last fall.

The survey, conducted by Auburn Seminary, found that 49 percent of the surveyed schools offered five or more courses while 29 percent offered two or fewer. Islam and Judaism were the most studied religions. The leading institution, Luther Seminary in Minnesota, offered 43 courses.

Course titles ranged from "God and the New York Times" offered by Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston Salem, N.C., to "American Buddhisms: An Experiential Introduction" offered by Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

"The narrative that America is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world," Mr. Baird said, "is taking hold."

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