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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

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve spent 15 days in Europe, including the Vatican, where he met with high Roman Catholic officials Tuesday, Sept.13, 2010. Elder Ballard with Cardinal William Joseph Levada.

Photos courtesy Elder Ronald A. Rasband

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the Brigham Young University students in the Marriott Center stood to welcome Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve. However, the presence of Cardinal Francis George made this day different. The prominent Catholic leader came to discuss issues of common concern for people of faith.

The interfaith outreach efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been ongoing and varied since the days of Joseph Smith, but the goal remains to create friendships and solve issues.

Cardinal George's visit to BYU and LDS Church headquarters in February 2010 is an example of how bridges have been built in recent years.

“I am personally grateful that, after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see one another as trustworthy partners in the defense of shared moral principles and in the promotion of the common good of our beloved country,” Cardinal George said at the time.

The friendship began during a famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, said James Jardine, the LDS interfaith representative for Salt Lake City. The LDS Church added its contributions to the existing programs established by the Catholic Church.

That early effort has led to $11.2 million in joint humanitarian aid and both visits and friendships among leaders of both churches. For instance, Elder Ballard, accompanied by a delegation of general and local authorities, visited Vatican City in September 2010. They were received by Cardinal William Joseph Levada.

Referring to that visit, Elder Ballard told the LDS Church News, “The way the world is unraveling, all of us need each other to take a stand for religious liberty, which we believe is going to become a real issue. ... Those who care need to stand together and have their voices heard. People of faith have just simply got to speak out. They've got to be together."

Good feelings continue, as Elder Ballard recently enjoyed a summer day of golf Aug. 3 with the Most Rev. John C. Wester, Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City.

The chairman of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, the Rev. Father Elias Koucos of the Greek Orthodox Church, spoke with appreciation for the LDS Church’s contributions to the group, including hosting lunch meetings and providing the Salt Lake Tabernacle for the annual Interfaith Musical Tribute each February.

“I’ve gotten to know so many people in the LDS Church who have been some good friends and some good contacts,” the Rev. Koucos said. He first met President Spencer W. Kimball at an event for the Utah Blind Society, and President Kimball spoke of several Orthodox clergy members he had met over the years.

Elaine Emmi, a former chairwoman and founding member of the Interfaith Roundtable, said involving minority faiths had been a priority when Utah interfaith efforts began with the 2002 Olympics. She said that although there are few members of her faith in Utah — Emmi is a Quaker — each voice has been heard.

Emmi said she appreciated the support resources the LDS Church has provided to facilitate interfaith work in Utah. “It was kind of like having an elder in the room, someone who could give you advice on where to go for funding,” she said.

Due to the outstanding success of interfaith cooperation during the Olympics, Emmi and three other Utah representatives were invited to present a workshop at the Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona in 2004.

Josie Stone, an Episcopalian and vice chairwoman of the Interfaith Roundtable, said the diversity and cooperation among various faiths in Utah surprised her at first, but it has brought her joy.

“I think Salt Lake is a model for cities to be able to offer this in their communities,” Stone said. “And I think that that would help solve a lot of problems about religion and race.”

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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