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Prayer Breakfast in Washington Sets a More Ecumenical Tone

It was an odd kind of Protestant evangelical affair, with three Catholics, two Jews and a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, finishing up with a prayer for peace in the Middle East. The speakers’ list at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast here may have sounded like a punch line, but the organizers appeared to be deadly serious in their attempt to lay to rest talk that the event has fallen into proselytizing.

The speakers included two Jewish and two Catholic U.S. senators; Chief of Naval operations Adm. Michael Mullen, who is Catholic; and Jordanian King Abdullah II, believed to be a descendant of Mohammed.

That meant that of 12 speakers — including President Bush and Bono, the Catholic rock star and advocate of aid to Africa — half did not belong to the evangelical Protestant groups that spurred forward the American tradition of prayer breakfasts.

“It sounds like they have been making a conscientious effort to be more inclusive and that this year’s prayer breakfast made some significant strides in that direction,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Saperstein, who did not attend this year’s breakfast, on Thursday, had been critical of the homogeneity of an event that is meant to reach all Americans.

The centerpiece of the event, which drew thousands of people, was Bono’s impassioned plea for greater U.S. assistance to Africa and to AIDS relief. The rock star handily quoted Muslim, Jewish and Christian scripture, yet won listeners over with his self-deprecation.

“I’m certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless the cloth is leather,” he said.

As if to emphasize the pluralistic tone, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), the Jewish co-host of the event, launched the proceedings with the central Jewish prayer, the Shema.

“I’ve prayed it since I was a little boy,” he said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an observant Jew, also participated, delivering a prayer in Hebrew for national leaders.

Coleman, the first Jew to lead the prayer breakfast since its inception in 1953, was at the center of a controversy last year when he spoke at the event and praised “the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus.”

That and proselytizing literature saying that “Jesus Christ transcends all religions” led to protests from some Orthodox rabbis in attendance.

The Fellowship Foundation, the evangelical group that organizes the breakfasts, had a series of meeting with Coleman this year to address those concerns.

Jews who attended said the event was a success.

“I did see an effort both in the program and in conversations with some of their leaders that they’re trying to be more accommodating,” said Rabbi Levi Shem-Tov, the representative of the Lubavitch movement in Washington. “I don’t expect them to change the basic tenor of the event, but to allow for a fact that there is a significant population which may have religious beliefs that differ from theirs but are as much a valid part of the fabric of America as theirs.”

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, attended for the first time. He said that everything, from the ecumenical appeal for increased aid for Africa and for peace in the Middle East to the meatless breakfast, made him feel at home.

“I felt totally comfortable being there as a Jew,” said. “That’s the sign of a good event.”

Abdullah concluded the event with an exegesis of the first sentences of the Koran, showing reverberations of the Jewish Bible and the New Testament.

Then, standing alongside Coleman and his co-host Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), he delivered a prayer for peace in the Middle East. He asked that “not one more generation will grow up knowing conflict or injustice nor suffer from poverty or oppression, that not one more family will lose a loved one to war, and that together Muslim, Jew and Christian, we can create a new future.”

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