Abrahamic faiths crack the door to deeper dialogue

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Yusuf Muwwakkil was invited to travel to Turkey last fall with a group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he says his first thought was, "Why go half way around the world to get to know each other, when we all live right here in Atlanta and don't do it?"

But in the current atmosphere of mistrust between faiths, the community leader at Al-Islam mosque decided he should try anything that might make things better. Now he calls the 10-day bus journey by 45 "pilgrims," 15 from each religion, one of the most important experiences of his life.

"When you see people strong in their faith willing to put their thoughts on the line and listen to others - even when the gloves come off - and then come out of that with strong relationships, it gives you hope," Mr. Muwwakkil says in a phone interview. "Hope makes good things possible." Back in Atlanta, group members now get together often - inviting one another to gatherings, holding forums, giving talks at schools.

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Since Sept. 11, most Americans have become starkly aware of the great gaps in understanding and heightened tensions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews at home and abroad. Recognizing the need to build bridges and to strengthen moderate voices, many are experimenting with new forms of what some call "Abrahamic dialogue."

The imaginative Turkey trip, sponsored by the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, put people in close proximity for an extended time. "I saw that about the third day, we went past tolerance and began to step into the area of appreciation, respect, and trust," Muwwakkil says.

Other initiatives have sprung directly from the bestseller by Bruce Feiler, "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths." They see the patriarch Abraham, to whom all three faiths trace their roots, as a possible source for finding common ground and understanding.

Last fall, Mr. Feiler and his publisher encouraged the formation of "Abraham salons" around the country by offering discussion materials to interested groups. Some 500 requests poured in within two months from libraries, bookstores, individuals, and religious institutions, he says, and about 5,000 have downloaded the materials from a website.

"People are craving hope, and this is a concrete step," says Feiler. "The themes of religion and violence and interfaith relations have only deepened in the past two years. There's a lot of hostility and mistrust, but also a sense among those interested that failure is not an option."

Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation in the District of Columbia held an Abraham Summit last October, and says some ongoing groups meet as a result. They've also held an interfaith seder, and are planning an Abraham gathering for students in the fall. "The post-9/11 response," Rabbi Lustig says, "has intensified the need to make sure a moderate voice is heard in all faiths - Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. We can't allow the voice of extremists to be what's in people's minds."

Kareem Adeeb, an engineer in Fairfield, Conn., has joined in several Abraham salons sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Fairfield County. "We all need to emphasize spirituality and the one God," he says. "We need to recognize that diversity should not be a case for enmity. A verse in the Koran says that if God had wished, he could have made us all the same."

At the same time, the heightened violence in the Middle East has also taken its toll on interfaith communication in the US. Muslim and Jewish communities in the Los Angeles area, for example, had a well-developed dialogue going on. Yet, according to Leila Al-Marayati of the Muslim Women's League, it has disintegrated to such a degree that people "can't even admit there needs to be a dialogue." She spoke at Harvard University last month on a panel of women leaders, Jewish and Muslim, concerned with the lack of civil discourse.

Interfaith dialogue is needed to humanize the other groups and to counter hate-mongering, the women agreed.

Robert Leikind, president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Boston, recalls the suggestion by the American Islamic Congress last February to hold a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the journalist killed by terrorists in Pakistan. He was particularly moved, he says, when an imam arrived at the service wearing a Jewish kippa, and said, "Tonight, I am Jew."

ADL recently invited Akbar Ahmed, professor of Islamic studies at American University, to speak on the potential for Abrahamic dialogue to promote coexistence. Among many examples to build on, Dr. Ahmed pointed to the five daily prayers, in which Muslims bless Abraham and the descendants of Abraham - which includes Jews. His talk led, Leikind says, to a meeting with local Muslims. ADL also plans an Interfaith Youth Leadership Camp in Maine this summer.

In Portland, Ore., the Center for Spiritual Development at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral had such a response to its Abraham talks that it joined with religious leaders and area universities to create a two-year program called the Abraham Initiative. It will offer evening classes, workshops, talks, and retreats on the sacred texts, art, history, and practices of the three traditions.

The key for many is to form ongoing relationships that build trust between communities. "I believe in a slow progression, and am interested in people who will be there for the long haul," Lustig says.

That is what the Turkey trip did for Muwwakkil. "This world can make you cynical very rapidly," he says. "But this experience enhances something the world needs most right now - hope."

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