- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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.

Interfaith movement gains new strength

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.”

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.

He said, “May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians give strength to you to carry out your noble idea.”

The idea for the conference came from mainline Protestants, said Richard Hughes Seager, author of “The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago 1893.”

“The biggest impact in the long term was the arrival of the half-dozen Asian representatives who captured the imagination of the press and who were responsible for Buddhism and Hinduism coming to the United States,” said Mr. Seager, a religious studies professor at New York’s Hamilton College.

“People were expecting vague holy men but instead got these energetic creatures,” he added, “although they dressed in their traditional robes. It was all part of the fin de siecle gilded idealism that was what many call the first age of globalization.”

The Asian representatives went on to hold lecture tours throughout the West and returned home as heroes, he said. Interest in Eastern religions percolated for several decades until popular interest in Zen soared in the 1950s. Interest in Eastern religions exploded again a decade later because of changes in immigration laws in 1965 that allowed in more Buddhists from Asia, many from Vietnam. Hindu temples also began to sprout across the country.

The World’s Parliament lives on, most recently at the five-day 2009 Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia, that attracted 4,000 people. Participating groups ranged from Sikhs to Scientologists, and climate change was the main topic of the day.

Funding the movement

Although the Australian government provided $4 million to help underwrite the 2009 gathering, the main funding for worldwide interfaith efforts still comes from the United States. Foundations that lend money to interfaith initiatives include the Henry Luce Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Open Society Institute’s Soros Foundations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of the most well-known 20th-century interfaith efforts, the San Francisco-based United Religions Initiative (URI), has garnered support from many secular foundations and wealthy patrons since its founding 10 years ago. Its annual budget is $2.6 million, and it boasts 317,000 members in 72 countries who are committed to what it calls “transforming religious conflict into positive social change.”

Led by retired Episcopal Bishop William Swing, the URI’s backers and partners have expanded to include the United Nations, mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America. The U.S. government also has offered indirect support, in the form of a $30,000 grant in 2002 from the federally funded U.S. Institute of Peace.

But the effort is not without critics.

Lee Penn, a Roman Catholic writer and author of the 2004 book “False Dawn: The United Religions Initiative, Globalism, and the Quest for a One-World Religion,” said the URI, whether or not it intends to, provides the basis for a coming global religion.

“Under President George W. Bush and President Obama, American civil religion is now interfaith,” encompassing what Mr. Obama in his inaugural address called a “patchwork heritage” of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers, Mr. Penn said. “Officially, Christian America is no more.”

“The interfaith movement is growing worldwide and the United Religions Initiative is one of its leading organizations. The URI, in time, aspires to have the visibility and stature of the United Nations.

“In short, global governance and interfaith are now normal and accepted ideas for secular and religious leaders worldwide. The new world order is not science fiction; it is being built now. The question is not whether there will be a new world order; it is who will control it and for what ends.”

Barbara Hartford, a spokeswoman for URI, denied that the group’s intent is to forge a one-world religion.

“That just isn’t true,” she said. “Our first principle says we’re a bridge-building organization, not a religion.”

There’s a huge grass-roots movement among religions worldwide to work together, she said, which is why the interfaith movement has captured the imaginations of so many.

“It is the one thing that’s wanted and needed,” she added. “Wherever we go in the world, religion and spirituality play a huge place in 95 percent of the people’s lives.”

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