Ongoing Mormon interfaith outreach efforts aim to build friendships, solve issues

By Lucy Schouten

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3 2013 1:20 p.m. MDT

Jardine said interfaith outreach began with Joseph Smith, who invited ministers of other faiths to speak in Nauvoo, Ill. President Gordon B. Hinckley was also well known among leaders of other faiths.

“He saw that living the gospel means loving all our neighbors, and we can do better at that,” Jardine said. “Friendship is its own reward and its own purpose.”

As the LDS Church has grown, “neighbors” have included many people of non-Christian faiths.

There is a longstanding Jewish community in Utah, and Jardine pointed out that Utah elected a Jewish governor in 1917, which was a period of anti-Semitism in many places. President Hinckley maintained a close friendship with Utah Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch.

The LDS Church donated $250,000 for the construction of the Hindu Krishna temple in Spanish Fork in 1991, said Charu Das, festival coordinator at the temple.

At that time Sister Chieko Okazaki, first counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, urged members in the area to view the coming temple as an addition to their own community. Then-stake president Stanley Green from Salem oversaw the organization of service nights, where members helped with construction in groups of up to 200, Das said.

“We don’t actually get that much Krishna association here in Utah, so we have Mormon friends and neighbors,” Das said. “There’s people who think of God and move toward God, and they’re definitely worth associating with, regardless of denomination.”

The church was also the only non-Muslim source for donations to the Khadija Mosque in Salt Lake City in 1994, said Dr. Iqbal Hossain, who has been a prominent leader in the Utah Muslim community for more than 30 years.

“They did help us,” Hossain said. “But what was more helpful than the money is the way the LDS Church has interacted with us over the years, especially since 9/11.”

Humanitarian aid has gone to several Islamic countries, including Jordan and Kosovo. In 2012, the church began sending assistance to Jordan to help Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. Hygiene kits for 10,000 refugees were assembled by local humanitarian missionaries called for that purpose, as well as BYU students studying Arabic there and young single adults from the local Greek Orthodox Church.

BYU is the source of other significant connections with the Muslim world, including the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. The idea of translating the classic texts was proposed in the 1990s by Daniel Peterson, a Middle Eastern Studies professor at BYU. Morgan Davis, the project’s editor, said BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship has published 22 different works in a groundbreaking format where the English translation is printed alongside the original language.

Davis has taken copies of these books to the United Nations and embassies in the Middle East and has given them to Muslim ambassadors who have visited BYU. He reported that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve takes “an armful of books” on his travels to Jordan.

Although the Maxwell Institute has begun to publish some early Christian translations and medical treatises by the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, they represent the intellectual heritage of Islam’s Golden Age. These books also went to the annual dinner of the Muslim Council of Great Britain when Elder Clifford T. Herbertson of the Seventy was invited to attend in April 2013.

Davis wrote a blog post explaining the purpose of the project: “In the face of modern extremist attempts to tear down the humanizing bulwark of the values to which Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all historically contributed, it is now more critical than ever that people of faith and goodwill find ways to seek understanding through dialogue.”

Lucy Schouten is an Arizona native studying journalism and Middle Eastern studies at Brigham Young University. Contact her at lucy@deseretnews.com.

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