Continued from page 1

But is the American model of cooperation among rabbis, priests, imams, pastors and other spiritual leaders exportable? Rabbi Izhak Dayan, the chief rabbi of Geneva, was not so sure.

“Here in the United States, there is much more cooperation between Jews and Muslims than in Europe,” he noted, adding that extremists of both religions might use violence to short-circuit interfaith outreach in Europe.

“It’s more dangerous for Muslims to take part in this than for the Jews,” he said. “The Jews would just be criticized [by other Jews], but the Muslims …,” he added, his voice trailing off.

Up walked Hafid Ouardiri, a gregarious Algerian-born Muslim who heads the Interknowing Foundation, a Geneva-based group pushing interreligious dialogue. Mr. Ouardiri wore a “Never again” button from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which the group visited that morning. Both men recounted how the imams were so taken aback by the horrors detailed at the museum that they offered to say a prayer on the spot.

“That is when we achieved the goal of our visit,” Rabbi Dayan said. He threw his arms around Mr. Ouardiri.

“When we go back to Geneva,” Mr. Ouardiri promised, “we’ll do more cooperation. If I see a Jew being bothered because of his faith, I will do something about it.”

After a tour of the Rotunda, the group hastened to a downstairs room, where they were greeted by Rep. Andre Carson, Indiana Democrat and the second Muslim ever to hold a House seat. Mr. Carson, who converted to Islam as a teenager, shook hands with everyone, greeting them in Arabic and Hebrew.

“It’s so good to see my friends on both sides of the religious aisle, if you will,” he said. “The real world changers and leaders are in this room. You have influence over the hearts, minds and spiritual direction of most of the people on this earth.”

Interfaith beginnings

America has been pluralistic since before the Revolutionary War when a group of Anglican clergy joined ministers from Dutch, French, Baptist, Presbyterian and Moravian churches in New York to celebrate Britain’s victory over France. The First Amendment to the new nation’s Constitution embraced that reality, prohibiting a state-established religion and creating a capitalist-style free market that forced religious leaders to compete for souls.

The desire for innovation and spiritual choice is what produced a cacophony of new religions in the 18th and 19th centuries, ranging from the Mormons to the Methodists to the Millerites, a group that led the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

But many religious scholars say a seminal event in the U.S. interfaith experience was the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

First World’s Parliament

Held on the shores of Lake Michigan, the gathering was the first global attempt to promote interfaith dialogue. The more esoteric movements of the time, such as Christian Science, attained their first widespread notice by attending. The Baha’i faith — also a new religion at the time — was mentioned, although no adherents could attend. Also attending were English-speaking representatives of Eastern religions: the Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala, the famed Jain spiritual leader Virchand Gandhi and the celebrated Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda.

The best-remembered incident from the gathering was a speech given by the swami. He identified Judaism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism as the world’s oldest religions before giving a summary of his faith and congratulating the Americans for the conference.

Story Continues →