A Delicate, Daring Bid to Deepen Interfaith Harmony

Times Staff Writer

Mahmoud Abdel-Baset was scared.

As director of religious affairs for the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, he and his interfaith partners had condemned the Taliban’s destruction of precious Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

He had participated in prayer vigils after the Los Angeles riots and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He had helped lead countless discussions about the intersection of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


But last year, when his partners at the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council proposed a joint pilgrimage to Israel, Abdel-Baset gulped. How, he wondered, could he sell this trip to the Muslim community at the height of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? Could they separate raging political emotions from religious belief?

“With so much bloodshed and suicide bombings, it was the least opportune time to talk to my community about this,” Abdel-Baset recalled. “I didn’t know how to break it to my board.”

But he did. And some members of his mosque agreed to take the trip. In the euphoria of that achievement, Abdel-Baset’s early fears vanished.

On Thursday, after months of delicate preparation, he and 45 other Muslims, Christians and Jews left Los Angeles for an 11-day visit to Israel and Jordan in what they say is one of the first pilgrimages from Southern California to the Holy Land that includes all three Abrahamic faiths.

In promoting the trip, Abdel-Baset says, he challenged his community to “put your money where your mouth is” on issues of interfaith harmony and Islam’s inclusive embrace of Judaism and Christianity.

“It’s easy to talk,” he said, “but this trip is putting us to the test. We’re going to live together and visit each other’s holy places. This probably can’t happen anywhere else besides America.”

In addition to Abdel-Baset, the group’s leaders are Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Father Rick Byrum of St. James Episcopal Church and Deacon Eric Stoltz of St. Brendan Catholic Church.

Other pilgrims are drawn from diverse walks of life, including engineering, physical therapy, education, business and accounting. They are evenly divided between men and women, and among the three faiths, along with one Unitarian Universalist.


The leaders, who have deeply bonded during a year of planning, said an array of reasons motivated their decision to become pilgrims. Stein, who left a career as a musical conductor at age 40 to begin studying for the rabbinate in 1998, said the legacy of the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf influenced his decision.

Wolf had taught him that living fully as a Jew meant understanding and reaching out to the world around him. Wolf made Wilshire Boulevard Temple “an open door for religions,” Stein said.

In deciding to participate, he thought of other models of faith in his life. There is his cousin in Israel, who quit her government job rather than discriminate against Arabs. One of his best friends is an Arab Israeli. The trip in some way, he said, is honoring all of them.

Stoltz, a Web designer who was recently ordained as a deacon, said he was drawn to the trip by Catholic teachings on social justice and interfaith outreach. Personally, he said, he aims to deepen his own faith.


Byrum is a former missionary in West Africa who became an Episcopal priest in 2000. When asked for his motivation, he cited the classic story about the blind men who touch an elephant and all describe it differently.

“I don’t want to remain blind with just one perspective,” he said.

The trip’s leaders have carefully depoliticized the journey and stress that it is solely a religious pilgrimage. The group flew to Israel from Toronto on Air Canada to avoid using El-Al Israel Airlines, the country’s national carrier.

In his pitch to his community, Abdel-Baset said, he never referred to the destination as Israel; instead they would travel to the “holy sites.”


Stein said that, to avoid politics, the pilgrims would not even meet with Palestinian or Israeli peace groups.

The itinerary is replete with opportunities for cross-faith educational encounters in visits to such places as Tel Aviv; Nazareth; Bethlehem; Jerusalem; Galilee; and Amman, Jordan. At Tz’fat, the medieval center of Jewish mysticism and important locale for Sufism, Stein and Abdel-Baset planned to introduce pilgrims to both the Jewish and Islamic mystical traditions.

At the Basilica of the Annunciation of Mary, where the Angel Gabriel is believed to have told Mary she would give birth to Jesus, Abdel-Baset was scheduled to explain the Islamic significance of Jesus’ mother, known as Miriam.

At Mt. Nemo, where Moses is believed to have viewed the Promised Land before dying, reflections on his contributions to all three faiths were planned with readings on the relevant Deuteronomy passages and the Koranic version of the same events. At the Cenacle, the traditional site of the Last Supper, Byrum was scheduled to lead a Christian worship service.


The trip’s emotional high point is expected to be Jerusalem, the city sacred to all three faiths. Pilgrims will explore the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. The site houses the ancient Israelite temples, Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock -- the traditional site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. They will also trace the path of Jesus’ agony, crucifixion and resurrection at the Garden of Gethsemane and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

To share the experiences, the group has put up a website: There, pilgrims will post daily reports about their experiences and encourage other faith groups to make similar trips. On return, Stein says, the pilgrimage will begin its second stage, in which participants will share their experiences in community presentations.

The trip is bringing together pilgrims such as Azima Abdel-Aziz and Jean Cohen. Abdel-Aziz is a 64-year-old retired accountant born in Egypt. There, she experienced the fervor of Arab nationalism and the 1967 war against Israel before immigrating to the United States in the 1970s to study economics at New York University.

An Irvine resident, she is a member of the Islamic Center of Southern California.


Abdel-Aziz says the politics of Israel will not deter her from reaching out to her Jewish neighbors.

“I don’t care about political things; people are people,” she said. “I want to show [Jews) that we don’t have anything against them, and I’m sure they don’t have anything against us. I wish peace for everyone. Everyone.”

Cohen, 70, is a fourth-generation American descendant of German immigrants. She grew up in Illinois and Arizona without a strong affiliation to Israel or Judaism. After moving to Los Angeles in 1955, she became more involved in Jewish life, joining Wilshire Boulevard Temple and helping to establish such organizations as the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Cohen, who says her exposure to Islam has been limited, and Abdel-Aziz, who says she has few Jewish friends, will get to know each other very quickly as roommates during the trip. The two women express a common aspiration: to understand their differences and discover the common threads that bind together the children of Abraham.


“I think this trip is going to prove how much more alike we really are,” Cohen said.