Interfaith effort ends in distrust

LONDON, Nov. 25 (JTA) — A pledge intended to promote religious tolerance and understanding has become a source of interfaith tensions. The pledge to British Muslims was made in conjunction with Islamic Awareness Week, a high-profile event organized earlier this month by the Islamic Society of Britain. The pledge condemns attacks against the Muslim community in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, and includes a vow to work together toward greater interfaith understanding. Among the many people signing the pledge — along with Prime Minister Tony Blair and other political leaders — were Rabbi Charles Middleburgh, the director of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, and Rabbi Tony Bayfield, director of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Both men are active promoters of interfaith dialogue. But the rabbis are considering withdrawing their signatures after learning that articles offensive to Jews were published by a magazine connected to the Islamic Society. The offensive material appeared in several different articles over a number of years in Trends magazine, Middleburgh said. Trends, the mouthpiece of one of the Islamic Society´s youth organizations, Young Muslims, is temporarily out of publication. "There were allegations of Zionist domination of the American government, references to something that seemed to question the Holocaust" and articles "calling Israel — actually ‘the Zionists´ — barbarians and inhuman savages," Middleburgh said. Middleburgh said that he and Bayfield were planning to meet with the organizers of Islamic Awareness Week to discuss their concerns "both in the general and the specific." "What we´ve said is that we find this stuff totally unacceptable," Middleburgh said. "But they can´t cancel out material that has been published for some time. The most we feel they can do is to agree not to publish any similar things in the future. If they give us that assurance, then we may be satisfied." If the Islamic Society does not agree to do so, or says it cannot control the contents of its publications, Middleburgh said, he and Bayfield will have to discuss withdrawing their signatures from the pledge. Middleburgh said there actually was "a great deal of interfaith dialogue in London," through a number of forums, and that as someone personally involved in promoting such dialogue he was especially taken aback by the articles in Trends. Ajmal Masroor of the Islamic Society of London says the articles in Trends expressed the writers´ opinions and not the official view of the organization. "Everybody has a right to express their opinion. This does not mean this is an official policy of the Islamic Society," Masroor said. He cited an article that appeared in London´s Daily Express, which said the Koran was a bloodthirsty book, and said another article criticizing Islam appeared in the Daily Mail. "The editors have apologized if the views have offended anyone," he said, but printed the articles nevertheless. Masroor also said the Islamic Society is an independent organization with no official links to any other organization. England´s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, refused to sign the pledge, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey. A spokesman for the chief rabbi said did not sign the pledge for two reasons. One is that, as a matter of policy, senior religious leaders generally don´t sign such petitions, since they prefer to express opinions in their own words. A second reason is that although the chief rabbi agrees with the content of the pledge, he had been informed that the Islamic Society of Britain allegedly has links to radical groups, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, said Jeremy Newmark, director of communications for Sacks. "We sought clarification from the Islamic Society about what the nature of these links were, but unfortunately these clarifications were not forthcoming," Newmark said. A senior security spokesman for Britain´s Jewish community said the Islamic Society of Britain had pressured leaders to sign the pledge, without properly identifying themselves. When some of the religious leaders looked a bit deeper, the spokesman said, they found that the Islamic Society had distributed leaflets last year containing anti-Zionist material that would have made it very difficult for any Jewish community leader to sign the pledge.

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