- The Washington Times - Monday, April 5, 2010

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.

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