Two major religious organizations, one Jewish and the other Muslim, have unveiled an interfaith dialogue project intended to reach hundreds of thousands of their members across the United States and Canada - writes Cheryl Heckler.
At its biennial convention in San Diego on 15 December 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism announced it had begun discussions with the Islamic Society of North America.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the union's president, told the 5000 people at the convention, "As a once-persecuted minority in countries where anti-Semitism is still a force, we understand the plight of Muslims in North America today."
He noted, "We live in a world in which religion is manipulated to justify the most horrific acts, a world in which - make no mistake - Islamic extremists constitute a profound threat. For some, this is a reason to flee from dialogue but in fact the opposite is true."
Yoffie said that when Jews and Muslims kill one another "in the name of God, sensible religious people have an obligation to do something about it".
The president of the Islamic Society of North America, Ingrid Mattson, endorsed the project in an address at the conference.
She is the first leader of a major Muslim group to do so and said: "If religion is about anything, it should be about the ability to extend empathy beyond our own family or tribe or religious community to humanity at large."
The Union for Reform Judaism is the largest of the three main branches of Judaism in North America. It has more than 900 congregations.
The Islamic Society covers more than 300 mosques and is the largest Muslim umbrella group in the United States and Canada.
The Jewish-Muslim discussions will be guided by a curriculum developed by the two groups. Manuals and videos will be built around topics that include links between religion and terrorism, and the place of Jerusalem in Jewish and Muslim history, culture and tradition.
Eleven synagogue-mosque pairings have already been set up as pilot programmes throughout North America. Yoffie, however, encouraged those attending the San Diego conference to request materials and begin their own dialogues with mosques in their communities.
"There exists in our community a profound ignorance about Islam, along with a real desire to learn about what moves and motivates Muslims today. We must respond to this desire with serious programmes of education," Yoffie said.
He also told conference participants that the Union for Reform Judaism chose the Islamic Society as its partner because the Muslim group steadfastly condemns terrorism and consistently supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]