- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Last of three parts.

NEW YORK | Rabbi Marc Schneier’s Upper East Side office at the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding is relatively stark; a bookshelf here, an abstract painting there, and little hint of the outsized role he’s played in bringing opposites together.

When he founded the FFEU 20 years ago, it was geared toward improving relations between the black and Jewish communities. Then three years ago, he switched to a much harder mission: Muslims and Jews.

“The challenge of the 21st century,” he said in an interview, “is to narrow the chasm between Judaism and Islam.”

So he threw his energies into meeting with the world’s top Islamic leaders. In 2007, he hosted a summit of rabbis and imams in New York. In 2008, the FFEU began a yearly “twinning” weekend each November, when a mosque and synagogue in the same city would pair up, attend each other’s services and begin the slow and cumbersome business of getting to know each other.

That same year, Mr. Schneier attended the World Conference on Dialogue, convened by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and hosted by King Juan Carlos of Spain. In September, he attended a similar gathering in Vienna, Austria, also sponsored by the Saudi king.

The king has realized how much damage has been done by religious fundamentalists and extremists, particularly in Islam,” he said. “It’s become a preoccupation with Abdullah.”

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The king is the main driver behind an effort to build an interfaith center either in London or Vienna, the rabbi said, a surprising move given that one of the Saudi king’s honorific titles is that he guards Islam’s holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina.

“For someone who’s supposed to be the ‘guardian of the two mosques,’ to be behind an interfaith center speaks volumes,” Mr. Schneier said.

What’s in this for the Saudis?

“The future of Islam,” the rabbi responded. “They have this internal struggle between moderates and radicals. I believe the moderates will win out, but we’ve got to help them take back their religion from the cadre of extremists who’ve hijacked it.”

But what if the Saudis have the ulterior goal of converting the world to their religion?

“I’m not questioning their motives,” the rabbi said. “I am focused on the ultimate result.” Jews and Muslims are likewise invested in the need for world peace, he added, saying that “not only do we share a common faith, but a common fate.”

Edward Curtis, religious-studies professor at Indiana University and author of the book “Muslims in America: A Short History,” said it is no surprise that Muslim leaders have encouraged recent gains on the interfaith scene.

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