United States offers Europe an interfaith model

Second of three parts.

It was a warm summer afternoon in the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and some European rabbis and imams were exchanging bearhugs.

Imam Mohamed Kajjaj, vice president of the Council of Muslim Theologians of Belgium, waxed eloquent about all the Muslim-Jewish give and take.

“It’s been magnificent, wonderful,” he said, speaking in French. “This is a grand movement for the future.”

These Muslim and Jewish leaders had met for the first time only a few days earlier as part of an unusual effort by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) to foster ties between two religions with a history of conflict and suspicion on modern times.

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In July, the foundation flew more than two dozen of these religious leaders from Europe — where religions rarely communicate with one another — to the United States, where interfaith cooperation has been part of the religious landscape for hundreds of years. The FFEU, which spent $150,000 on the project, was banking on America’s interfaith experiment being attractive enough as a model for other cultures.

After a whirlwind tour of New York mosques and synagogues — and a stop at Manhattan’s ground zero — they came to Washington. Standing in the halls of the Capitol, clerics who in Europe might have barely acknowledged one another were bubbly with enthusiasm. Being on neutral ground had bonded them.

Rabbi Michel Serfaty, a tall man wearing a black hat and the Moroccan-born president of the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Society in France, was joking with Abdelkader Arbi, an Algerian-born Muslim chaplain for the French army.

“He is Sitting Bull, and I am Geronimo,” Mr. Arbi jested.

As the group worked its way past statues of Colonial leaders, participants noted that America’s unique history has everything to do with strong interfaith relations and harmony.

“For communities to coexist,” said Phillip Camel, director of international affairs for the Conference of European Rabbis, “they need to feel comfortable in the society in which they live. The American model shows that in allowing minorities to integrate, to keep their identities as Muslim-Americans, Jewish-Americans or whatever, while keeping the title ‘American,’ means each minority joins a collective whole.”

“In Europe, it’s harder for minorities to integrate into a dominant culture. Because the U.S. is an immigrant country, we all come on equal footing. You don’t have centuries of a dominant culture here.”

Rabbi Raphael Evers, dean of the Dutch Israelite Seminary in Amsterdam, was equally impressed.

“I’ve learned that America is the example of the melting pot of all nations,” he said. “Racism is still going on, but America brings it all together.”

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