Image: Rick Warren
Donna Mcwilliam  /  AP file
Evangelical pastor Rick Warren has worked with the Islamic Society of North America and plans to address its annual convention this weekend.
updated 7/1/2009 2:11:13 PM ET 2009-07-01T18:11:13

Sayyid Syeed remembers an interfaith event several years ago when a Jewish leader went to embrace him, saw someone snapping a photo, then suddenly pulled back.

"He said to the man, 'Stop,'" Syeed recalled, "'I'll lose my job.'"

Times have changed for the Islamic Society of North America and for Syeed, who leads the group's interfaith outreach. In a sign of growing acceptance of U.S. Muslims, one of the most prominent religious leaders in the country, evangelical pastor Rick Warren, will speak at the Islamic Society's annual convention this weekend. Representatives from the two largest streams of American Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements, will also be there to highlight their recently formed partnerships with the Muslim group.

"The landscape of religion in America is changing," Syeed said. "America itself has reached a certain level of fulfillment in terms of diversity of faith."

The Islamic Society, an umbrella association for tens of thousands of Muslims, has worked for years to persuade leaders of other faiths to attend its convention, a massive family reunion in its 46th year that draws about 30,000 people.

Major American Jewish groups had largely stayed away from the event, mainly due to hostility between U.S. Muslims and Jews over Israel, the Palestinians and the role of Hamas in the region.

Many conservative Christians did the same. They viewed Islam through their experiences with Muslim countries where Christian minorities have been targets of violence and discrimination.

Also, suspicions over the origins of the Islamic Society lingered. The organization grew from Muslim Students Associations, campus groups that had received funding from Saudi Arabia.

Society has female president
In recent years, the society has prominently denounced terrorism, including terror by Hamas, and has endorsed a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. The organization also elected its first female president, Ingrid Mattson, who participated in the National Cathedral service for President Barack Obama the day after his inaugural.

"In terms of acceptance of Muslim Americans generally, I do believe this has increased in some ways, despite the large segment of Americans who hold unfavorable views of Islam," Mattson said. "Muslim Americans have, in recent years, decided that they have the major responsibility to counter the extremists' views of Islam with their own mainstream views, and so have put time into public education and outreach to their neighbors, on a local and national scale."

Syeed said that he and Warren, a Southern Baptist and author of "The Purpose Driven Life," have worked together on projects fighting malaria and advocating for people with HIV and AIDS.

The convention will not be the first time Warren has addressed an American Muslim group. Last December, he spoke at a meeting of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a policy organization based in Los Angeles. But the Islamic Society gathering is by far his most dramatic display of friendship with U.S. Muslims. Warren would not comment ahead of the event.

Two years ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American branch of Judaism, became the first major Jewish leader to address the convention. The two groups have pledged to fight extremism and build ties between mosques and synagogues nationwide.

Jewish group to attend as well
This year, Conservative Judaism, the second-largest American Jewish movement, will show its support at the assembly. Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a prominent professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative movement's flagship institution, will be a featured speaker. Conservative rabbis and the Islamic society have also been building relationships between local mosques and synagogues. Next year, along with Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, they plan a conference on Judaism and Islam in the United States.

"I think there has been a change in general perceptions," of American Muslims, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "When you look at the kind of symbolic participation of Muslims in public life, and you see Rick Warren and Rabbi Yoffie coming, those are all things you wouldn't have seen five years ago."

The Islamic Society, based in Plainfield, Ind., still has its opponents.

A stigma remains from the years immediately following Sept. 11 when the millions of U.S. Muslims, their mosques and charities came under intense public scrutiny in the search for domestic terrorists. None of the investigations yielded any finding of wrongdoing or penalty against the Islamic Society.

Visotzky said he is concerned about the potential for criticism of Conservative Judaism's work with the Muslim group. Bloggers who closely follow Warren already are denouncing his appearance at the convention, scheduled for Saturday night.

But Visotzky said he feels a sense of religious duty. He views the assembly as a chance to show American Jews that Muslims are reaching out to them despite differences over Israel, and explain to Muslims his support for the Jewish state.

"We are commanded to love our neighbors," Visotzky said, "and my friends at ISNA are good neighbors."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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