Jewish-Muslim dialogue

Rabbis and imams together

In an innovative move for both religions, European Jews and Muslims have committed to standing up in solidarity more often. The aim is to combat the resurgence of right-wing extremists in Europe. By Christoph Strack

Although the site is remote, it has plenty of symbolism: at the end of September, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders from some 15 countries met in the southern Italian city of Matera, one of Europe's 2019 cultural capitals, to take part in the Jewish European Islamic Summit. The leaders laid the groundwork that will allow them to speak out together more strongly on the issues affecting them.

"I think the project, in this particular arrangement, is rather unique. It is a tender blossom that must be nurtured and that deserves further support," said Tarafa Baghajati. Baghajati, a civil engineer from Vienna, is one of Austria's more prominent imams. Together with others, the 58-year-old founded the Initiative of Austrian Muslims (IMOe) in 1999. He was also involved in the creation of Platform Christians and Muslims, founded in 2006. He attended the summit in Matera.

The project is indeed unique. In Europe, generally, Jewish and Muslim leaders often only appear together at public events hosted by politicians, at three-way dialogues between Christians, Jews and Muslims, or at interfaith conferences. But three years ago, another group was founded: the Muslim Jewish Leadership Council (MJLC). It was established when a total of 14 European Jewish and Muslim leaders met in Vienna at the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, known as KAICIID. At first, the MJLC was a small group. Notably, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), was a member from the start. Over the course of several meetings, mutual trust grew and a true exchange began

Hurdles in Vienna

While the KAICIID is financed by Saudi Arabia, it is respected among experts. Yet it is currently under threat. In June, the lower house of Austria's parliament voted to withdraw from the international organisation and moved to cancel the agreement establishing Vienna as the KAICIID's headquarters, leaving KAICIID's future uncertain. Austria was one of the group's initial founders, along with Saudi Arabia and Spain.

Nevertheless, the Matera meeting of Jewish and Muslim religious leaders represented a new dimension in a dialogue that is so often overshadowed by the Middle East conflict. The summit was attended by imams and rabbis from Ireland to Greece and Romania, from Lithuania to Portugal.

The hilltop location of Matera in southern Italy (picture-alliance/dpa/G. Guarino)
Muslims and Jews as part of European culture: a committee was set up in Matera with two Muslims and two Jews each, with the idea of reacting publicly to controversies and holding talks in Brussels or in the capitals of EU member states

CER Secretary General Gady Gronich explained that in choosing Matera, the group wanted to underline the fact "that we are all part of Europe's culture." Moreover, Gronich added, Italy, like many other European countries currently governed by right-wing populists, has recently sought to limit religious practices related to the slaughtering of animals and the circumcision of young men, both of which are common in Judaism and Islam. For now, those initiatives have been put aside, he said.

Concern about right-wing populists

Gronich says Europe's Jewish and Muslim communities are both very concerned about such political attempts aimed at limiting religious practices. In Matera, the two communities created a new interfaith body. Comprised of two Jewish and two Muslim leaders, the committee is intended to publicly address controversial topics and discuss them with political leaders in Brussels or other European capitals.

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