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Jordan's king extends hand to Jews

Abdullah, talking to rabbis, lauds common values

WASHINGTON -- Convening an unprecedented meeting between a Muslim head of state and Jewish religious leaders, King Abdullah II of Jordan urged Jews and Muslims yesterday to ''take bold steps toward mutual forgiveness and reconciliation" to counteract extremist violence produced by distortion of religion.

Abdullah, who has taken a leading role in advocating moderation and modernization in the Arab world, quoted liberally from parallel passages of the Torah and the Koran as he told about 70 rabbis, including eight from the Boston area, that ''we must move beyond the language of mere tolerance toward true acceptance. Our common faith and shared history are [our] greatest asset."

''It cannot be denied that the relationship between Jews and Muslims has been very difficult in recent years," Abdullah said, adding, however, that before the friction there had been more than 1,000 years of shared culture, history, and faith.

''I come to you today as both neighbor and kin," Abdullah said.

The rabbis, who traveled to Washington as guests of the king, represented the major streams of Judaism. They robustly applauded Abdullah's initiative.

''His ability to cite Jewish and Muslim sacred text and use commonalities to underscore points he made was very impressive," said Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz of Young Israel of Brookline, an Orthodox synagogue.

''I have never heard a Muslim speak in these terms," Gewirtz said. ''He has offered the world a hopeful vision . . . The question is what happens next."

Jordanian diplomats who attended the session said no specific decision has been made on a next step. They described the meeting as the latest in a series of unusual initiatives by Abdullah that started during the Muslim festival of Ramadan last year, when the king issued a declaration in the Amman, the capital of Jordan, denouncing extremism and terrorism carried out in the name of Islam.

This was followed by an international Islamic conference Abdullah convened in Amman in July. There, 180 Muslim religious leaders, representing all major streams of Islam, denounced as illegitimate the issuance of fatwas, or Muslim religious rulings, by unqualified preachers who were operating outside established methods of Islamic jurisprudence.

The king said yesterday that the conference's statement on fatwas and apostasy means that ''Muslims from every branch of Islam can now assert without doubt or hesitation that a fatwa calling for the killing of innocent civilians -- no matter what nationality or religion, Muslim or Jew, Arab or Israeli -- is a violation of the most fundamental principles of Islam."

Rabbi Marc Gopin, a professor at George Mason University who is involved in back-channel diplomacy in the Middle East, said that the outlawing of such fatwas was vital, because ''the extremism in recent decades has all been based on fatwas by self-appointed religious leaders like Osama bin Laden."

Gopin, an organizer of yesterday's meeting, said that Abdullah's initiatives have aimed ''to strengthen moderate Islam, an Islam which in the king's view exists in harmony and peace with the rest of the world."

''It was most daring of him to reach out to Jews at a time when Jews, Israel, and Judaism have been conflated in many people's minds into a conflict between Judaism and Islam," Gopin said.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline said that a major accomplishment of Abdullah's statements to the rabbis was ''to show that it is possible to talk about Islam and Judaism outside of the context of the Middle East conflict."

''The big fear outside the region is that this is becoming a religious war rather than a political war," Waldoks said.

''I don't think it is a religious war -- yet. Dialogue outside of the region can help keep it from being one," Waldoks added.

The outreach to American Jewish leaders began when Joseph Lumbard, an American convert to Islam who is the king's adviser on interfaith affairs, contacted Robert Eisen, a professor of religion and Judaic studies under whom Lumbard had studied at George Washington University.

Eisen, an Orthodox Jew involved in religious dialogue and peace work, is on the board of the center for world religions and conflict resolution that Gopin heads at George Mason. He, Lumbard, and Gopin helped to arrange the king's meeting with the rabbis.

King Abdullah's aim is ''to reaffirm traditional Islam, which shows not only tolerance but acceptance" of other faiths, said Lumbard, who will soon resign his position advising the monarch to become professor of Islamic studies at Brandeis University in Waltham.

Lumbard and others said yesterday's meeting also was significant because Jewish-Muslim dialogue has generally involved lay people rather than clergy or government officials. Orthodox practitioners of the two faiths also have been less deeply involved, and ''if you're just going to have fringe liberal Muslims talking to fringe liberal Jews, not much is going to happen," Lumbard said.

Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College in Newton, said ''most rabbis fear there is no one on the other side with whom to talk. Here is a man who wants to talk. . . . The Islam he is preaching will move us away from religious war."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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