A key date is approaching, April 12, for the final hurdle to be cleared in the most ambitious interfaith project ever attempted – combining houses of worship for Christianity, Islam and Judaism on the same campus in the middle of America.
It's called the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska. If it succeeds, its leaders have said they hope it will become a model for the nation and perhaps the world.
Advertisement - story continues below
The controversial $60 million project has provoked warnings from some Christians and Jews who say the Muslim element in the Tri-Faith deal is hiding its extremist views toward Israel and support for Hamas, which is on the U.S. government's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The three houses of worship – a mosque with ties to groups started by the Muslim Brotherhood, a Reform synagogue and a church affiliated with the United Church of Christ – are pushing forward with the plan nonetheless.
This Sunday's vote by the Countryside Community Church looms big. The church has plenty of cash to shower upon the project: Billionaire Warren Buffett's daughter, Susie Buffett, is among its flock and she has contributed nearly $1 million with promises of more. A thumbs up by the church will free up more money for the construction of the participating mosque.
Non-Muslim donors have made major financial pledges to partially fund the Muslim house of worship if a Christian congregation commits to building a church, the Omaha World Herald reported.
Advertisement - story continues below
WND has reported previously about the work of one Omaha physician and former Muslim, Dr. Mark Christian, to expose the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement in the Tri-Faith Initiative, which seemed to be sailing along without controversy until Christian's Global Faith Institute started pushing back.
But Christian, who grew up in Egypt the son of a Muslim Brotherhood member and whose great-uncle was one of its founders, is not the only one concerned about the Brotherhood's potential influence over the Nebraska project and the future of the interfaith movement.
Among those not enamored with the deal is Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
'Get it in writing'
Advertisement - story continues below
In an exclusive interview with WND, Klein said the message of caution he delivered to the rabbi at the participating synagogue, Temple Israel of Omaha, does not seem to be getting through.
"As I told Rabbi (Aryeh) Azriel, the people I've spoken to around the country with synagogues who've tried dialogues with mosques, they've all found out in time that these people have tremendous antipathy toward Israel," Klein said. "So I recommended to all of them that before they sign onto any dialogue, you should ask them (the Muslims) to sign documents saying they support Israel as a state, and they condemn Hamas as a terrorist group, and condemn Hezbollah also by name."
Klein said it's not enough for the mosque to say it's against terrorism, because some Muslims have a different idea of what constitutes a terrorist act.
Advertisement - story continues below
"You can't just say, 'We're against terrorism.' They must condemn (Palestinian leader) Mahmoud Abbas for promoting hatred and violence against Jews in his schools and his media and his speeches, condemn him for his official Fatah emblem showing all of Israel as 'Palestine,' and condemn him for saying, 'No Jew can live in Palestine,'" he said. "I told them all these are all very reasonable things. This is just what any decent person would say, 'Of course I'll condemn Hamas and Abbas for stating no Jew has a right to live in Palestine.'"
Klein said the rabbi assured him he had a verbal commitment that the Muslims involved in the project support the state of Israel's right to exist.
"I said, 'Oh so they've signed a document?'" The answer was no.
Then Klein said the board member with whom he spoke, from the Jewish Federation in Omaha, said he wasn't even aware of any verbal commitment.
"So I believe the rabbi was not telling me the truth," Klein told WND. "In my experience with the synagogues doing this around country, all it does is lend credibility to and legitimacy to the mosque that they were dialoguing with while the mosque maintains their hostile attitudes for Israel and Jews."
Critics also see the Christian element of the Tri-Faith agreement as failing to demand full disclosure from its Muslim partners.
The United Church of Christ is the same denomination in which Jeremiah Wright is a pastor. Wright was the notoriously anti-American, anti-Israel pastor who led the church the Obamas attended.
"The United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA are the two most anti-Israel Christian denominations in the world," Klein told WND.
Among the rules for the Tri-Faith Initiative is that all three religions agree not to proselytize. Along with the three houses of worship, a fourth building will also sit on the campus. This fourth building will serve as a center of interfaith enlightenment, cooperation and discussion, its organizers say.
Klein traveled to Omaha last month with the intention of speaking to several groups and meeting with Rabbi Azriel. He says he was snubbed.
"The rabbi said he wanted to meet with me in Omaha, but even though I called several times I never heard back from him," Klein said. "He also said Mark Christian is an Islamophobe. I asked him what Mark has said that leads him to believe that. He said, 'He just hates Muslims.'
"I told him many of us are concerned about the acts of Muslims around the world, not because of what they believe but because of what they say and do, their acts of violence against Christians and Jews," Klein said. "You will hear Muslims say, 'We condemn terrorism,' but that's not enough because I don't know how they define terrorism. It's like in the Holocaust saying, 'I condemn evil,' but not mentioning Hitler or the Nazis. It has no impact; you have to name names."
An article last Sunday in the Omaha World-Herald presented the Tri-Faith Initiative as a project that appears to have no detractors, only supporters, in the Omaha community. That belies the fact that the project has been in the works since 2009 and has already seen one potential Christian church back out of the effort after revelations by Mark Christian about the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement. The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska still owns the plot of land on which it once intended to build a church but plans to sell it to Countryside if that church votes to approve moving forward with relocating to the Tri-Faith campus.
For his efforts to expose the Muslim Brotherhood's connections to the project, Mark Christian has been marginalized by the local newspaper, the World-Herald, which is owned by the Buffett family. Other media outlets, with the exception of one local radio station, have largely ignored his findings.
Christian, who heads the Global Faith Institute, said the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA, is the main front group used by the Muslim Brotherhood for interfaith outreach with Christians and Jews. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, is also involved in such projects, as is the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim Student Association.
All of these front groups were named in 2007 as unindicted co-conspirators in the largest terrorism funding trial ever on U.S. soil, that of the Holy Land Foundation. Several Brotherhood members went to jail in that case for using the Holy Land charity to funnel money to Hamas. The trial was put on hold in 2009 after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder took office.
The Tri-Faith Initiative began raising money in 2009. Christian's Global Faith Institute started revealing the Muslim Brotherhood ties to the project a couple years later.
"The main one pushing the Tri-Faith Initiative is ISNA," Christian said. "I have a great suspicion that the Tri-Faith initiative will be the card for CAIR and for ISNA and MSA to get their names off the Holy Land Foundation trial when it moves forward. I explained this to pastor Eric Elnes at Countryside Church and rabbi Azriel, and I told them they will regret this decision because one day ISNA and CAIR and MSA are going to be on trial for supporting terrorists. And the Tri-Faith Initiative will be the thing they use to try to get out of it. They will present to the judge that they're no longer funding Hamas, and they are working with the Christians and Jews in interfaith cooperation."
'A bold and daring adventure'
WND reached out to Elnes, senior minister at Countryside Community Church, seeking comment on the upcoming vote of his congregation. He said he was "not in a position to comment" on Tri-Faith beyond what he has already stated publicly.
He forwarded to WND a letter he wrote to his congregants in which he recommended a positive vote, referring to the initiative as a "bold and daring adventure."
"We look forward to the future … trusting that a congregation taking a bold and daring adventure in response to the Spirit is more vibrant and lively and more attractive to future generations and to God, than one playing it safe," the statement said.
Elnes said he believed relocating to the Tri-Faith campus "represents the greatest opportunity in Countryside's history to make a bold yet wise investment that will yield increasing dividends for generations to come. Yet as your senior pastor and Congregationalist, I will support whatever daring adventure our congregation collectively determines is the best use of God's resources."
Christian said he presented the information connecting ISNA and CAIR to terrorism funding to Karim Khayati, the treasurer for the mosque that is involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative.
"He said, 'Please send me all that information, and I will refute it.' I sent it to him, and I never heard from him since," Christian said. "That was August 15, 2014, the last time I heard from Karim. I still have the email I sent him."
All references to CAIR and MSA in connection on the Tri-Faith and Countryside websites now have broken links. Clicking on these links takes the viewer to a "page not found" or "page under construction."
Christian says he has screenshots of the earlier pages.
"It actually is more scandalizing," Christian said. "This is an admission there is a problem. But the facts speak for themselves. We have all the screenshots."
Ingrid Mattson, the former president of ISNA and now a professor of Islamic Studies in Canada, came to Nebraska to speak for the mosque in 2009 at the inaugural event for the Tri-Faith initiative.
"So you had the national leader of the Episcopal Church, of the Reform synagogues and ISNA there at the same inaugural event," Christian said.
Christian believes the Muslim Brotherhood uses its front groups to partner with liberal, naïve Christian and Jewish sects, sending a message that it is moderate and cooperative with other faiths while also working to influence those other faiths.
"If you put two liberal groups together with a hardline Islamist, what does that get you? It gets you an Islamist," he said. "They can control the whole thing. They are setting the rules and running everything."
Christian said the "no proselytizing" rule was one of the reasons the Episcopal Church that had considered joining the Tri-Faith Initiative later backed out.
'Don't share the gospel' outside church
"The priest, Tim Anderson, told me he could not agree to that," Christian said. "He said the one thing he could not handle, that he did not want on his head, was they told him to never share the gospel on that campus with anyone outside the walls of the church."
Gary Javitch, a pro-Israel activist and member of Temple Israel, also has deep reservations about his synagogue's decision to join the interfaith campus.
Javitch pointed to a March 27 letter to the editor penned by one of the mosque's prominent members as evidence of anti-Israel hatred.
"I think it's laudable that my rabbi wants to talk, to have a tri-faith dialogue, with Christians, Muslims and Jews, but my reservation is over some of the Muslims that have voiced opinions quite vocally that were anti-Israel, and that belong to that mosque, because at one point the most outspoken Israel critic was on the board of not only the Tri-Faith Initiative but the of the mosque."
That outspoken person is Naser Alsharif, head of the Muslim Student Association in Nebraska. His March 27 letter to the editor stated that Israel was the "main threat" to peace and security because of its "brutal occupation" of Palestine and its "illegal colonies without any prospect for a just peace."
Alsharif is no longer on the Tri-Faith board, but he was there when the rules were being formulated and reportedly still attends its meetings.
Alsharif is a professor and doctor of pharmaceutical science at Creighton University, and he's a native of the Palestinian territories.
Watch Dr. Mark Christian expose CAIR and ISNA's Muslim Brotherhood connection in debate with Tri-Faith Muslim Naser Alsharif:
"My reservations are, why build on the same campus when you're unsure whether a sizable number of the Muslims are anti-Israel and you're unsure whether they renounce violence or want to see a two-state solution," Javitch told WND. "Part of the problem is, people are afraid of being called bigots or racist if they don’t want to go through with this. I know a lot of people who have written to me who have concerns about a lot of the same things I have concerns about."
Temple Israel has already built on the campus and is waiting to be joined by the mosque and church. Javitch said a vote of the synagogue's congregation didn't instill confidence.
"It was a vote before a partial group of the congregation most of whom were unfamiliar with all the issues," he said. "I'm not in any way suggesting that there's anything untoward about ISNA getting involved, but I do know that ISNA has taken some questionable positions regarding Israel in my view, so ISNA being involved in this is a concern.
"So I would have preferred a lot more talking before there was an agreement. In principle, I'm not opposed to the conversations, but until we know just how many people in the mosque are very anti-Israel and how many hold the same beliefs as Naser, I would have gone a lot more slowly on building on the same land."
'An example of peaceful coexistence' between faiths
The Omaha effort has caused others to take notice. The national Jewish publication The Forward said that if the Omaha experiment works, it "will become a beacon of cooperation in a world of interreligious strife."
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, a professor at Creighton University Medical School and a Muslim advocate of Tri-Faith, told the World-Herald the initiative has clearly defined goals.
"We want to accomplish something in Omaha. If it is successful, we hope that for the rest of our nation — and possibly beyond our borders — this would be an example of peaceful coexistence."
"This would really be a landmark in the tri-faith relationships we have built," Mohiuddin added. "It's a dream."
Klein isn't as hopeful that any good will come out of the Tri-Faith Initiative. The mosque element, he believes, will stick to the mainline Islamic belief that Israel has no right to exist as a majority Jewish state, and it will use the Christian groups to present a united front of Islamic propaganda.
"They consider Jews evil, we stole their land, we (Zionists) should all be killed. It's not terrorism to them," he said. "That's why you should make them sign documents before you negotiate anything with them, agreeing to things that any decent human being would agree to. Condemn the Hamas charter, the Fatah emblem, the maps devoid of Israel, etcetera. They're not doing that. They met with ISNA and other Muslim groups that are extremely hostile to Israel."
At its core, Klein believes almost all such interfaith deals ultimately lead to the same outcome.
"It's appeasement," he said. "The rabbi has brought them in to appease them. Appeasement as a strategy has failed throughout history. Winston Churchill said those who appease the crocodile will simply be eaten last."
Klein said the Zionist Organization of America learned this lesson the hard way.
"We had a decade of dialogue in Philadelphia with the Quakers, who are extremely anti-Israel. It never helped," he said. "You can dialogue with the KKK all you want, but they're not going to stop hating blacks. No matter how much you think your dialogue will help, it will never work."