- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Amid oceans of theological differences separating Jewish, Roman Catholic and Muslim communities, Barbara Hughes stands as a bridge.

Miss Hughes has spent years gathering faith leaders in Hampton Roads to discuss their similarities and plot ways to mend differences. She will spread the concept of unity among these divergent faiths as the new liaison to the Jewish and Muslim communities, under the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

Miss Hughes, of Norfolk, will encourage multifaith discussion groups aimed at strengthening all three denominations across southern and central Virginia and organize a leadership council to brainstorm other ways to link the faiths at the congregational level.

“It”s more important than ever that we do something positive,” Miss Hughes said.

Bishop Francis DiLorenzo named Miss Hughes to the position in October.

Past liaisons primarily maintained good vibes between state-level faith leaders as part of a decades-old denominational mandate, said the Rev. Raymond Barton, diocesan vicar for ecumenical and interreligious affairs.

Under Bishop DiLorenzo, Father Barton said officials wanted to expand the position to include reaching the average churchgoer with a message of tolerance.

“Wherever synagogues and mosques are, those Catholic parishes that surround them are [going to be] encouraged to have activities and bonds with them,” Father Barton said. “It was not as organized before.”

Miss Hughes is challenged with uniting three faiths with a tense past full of forced conversions and theological disputes.

Some Jews have said the Catholic Church didn”t speak out forcefully enough against the Holocaust.

Muslims and Jews have long engaged in bitter conflict in the Middle East.

“If you look at our histories, between Christians and Muslims and Jews, there”s been a lot of violence,” said Miss Hughes, adding that relationships weren”t always strained.

“Cultural ideologies interacted with the religious ideologies, and of course, not everyone is always on the same page,” she said.

Miss Hughes grew up in a staunchly Catholic family and studied at a convent for a time.

“All my friends were Catholic,” she said. “I probably didn”t know many people who were not Catholic until my high school years.”

She eventually settled into a life spent nursing and working within the church.

Then, starting in 2000, Pope John Paul II made a series of groundbreaking trips — one to a mosque in Syria and another to Israel”s Western Wall, where he asked forgiveness for sins against the Jews.

It touched Miss Hughes, who began researching the links among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, which trace their origin to the biblical figure Abraham.

Working with church leaders, she created Abraham”s Children Together, a monthly lunch group that expanded to host educational forums, Miss Hughes said.

It was one of the first such communal gatherings, said Rabbi Israel Zoberman, with Congregation Beth Chaverim, in Virginia Beach, and a former participant of the lunch group.

“There”s a hunger to want to know about each other,” he said. “When someone is willing to sponsor it and get involved the way Barbara Hughes has been, the results keep coming.”

After September 11, 2001, however, Miss Hughes said, participants” commitments shifted and the group went silent.

This time, she has the support of the entire diocese to keep the effort alive.

Ahmed Noor, trustee of the Mosque and Islamic Center of Hampton Roads, will participate.

“The idea of these ecumenical discussions is not to say: We are right, you are wrong,” Mr. Noor said. It”s to “identify the common beliefs and values.”

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