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Local Rabbi Promoting Religious Tolerance in Volatile Corner of World

August 31, 2011 By:
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From left are Capt. Rabbi John Cutler; Col. Jerry Lewis; Paulos I, leader of the Ethiopian Greek Orthodox Church; and Imam Shakur Abdul-Ali.

The Grand Mufti of Uganda, Sheikh Rajab Mubajje, had a request last month for Rabbi Jon Cutler: Next time you make it to Kampala, bring a Chumash. During the same trip, the chief Islamic judge of Ethiopia, Sheikh Abdul Chello, made a similar appeal: Next visit, stay longer and teach me about Judaism.

Though educating East African Muslim leaders about Jews isn't at the top of Cutler's agenda, the senior chaplain for the United States Navy in the Horn of Africa thinks it's an added bonus of his work to promote religious tolerance in a potentially volatile corner of the globe.

The Flourtown resident, who three years ago was deployed as a military chaplain to Iraq where he tended to the spiritual needs of the wounded, is now tasked with a mission of a very different sort.

Since January, the 26-year veteran of the Naval Reserves has been building relationships with key Christian and Muslim leaders in Djibouti, Ethopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and his recent swing through some of these countries, during the month of Ramadan, was part of that effort.

Somalia, which is beset by Islamic extremism and two decades of anarchy, is not on the travel agenda.

Cutler said he is trying to promote Muslim and Christian interaction in East Africa as a way to head off tensions and perhaps prevent unrest and conflict. The idea is also to influence perceptions of the United States among key leaders.

The Reconstructionist rabbi and naval captain said that American priorities for the region center around "defense, development and diplomacy." They also include seeking to contain Islamic extremism, which is not as widespread as in the Arab world, but remains very much a threat, he said.

"I really believe it is the religious leaders who are going to make a difference in East Africa, not the the politicians," said Cutler, a hospice chaplain at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales.

"Conflicts have torn the social fabric of the African societies, displaced millions of people, traumatized communities, drained the continent of material and human resources resulting in destabilizing governments and communities," the rabbi stated, adding that acting as a quasi-diplomat was a new role for him. "The ecumenical movement in Africa has a unique potential to respond effectively and in a timely manner to these social, political, cultural and economic challenges."

His deployment is expected to last for 13 months and he's based at the Navy's Camp Lemonnie in Djubuti, a desolate nation of about 700,000 people on the Indian Ocean coast. Cutler, who counseled rescue workers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, is planning to take part in a memorial service on the base. He's also going to lead High Holiday services.

Shortly into his stint, Cutler decided that what African clerics really needed was more information about how religious plurality and interfaith engagement works in America. In particular, many Islamic leaders had the mistaken impression that Muslims aren't free to practice their religion in the United States, said Cutler.

He said he had the perfect man for the job: his friend Imam Shakur Abdul-Ali, a chaplain for the Chester Police Department who had also been a U.S. Army chaplain and veteran of the Iraq war. (Cutler is actually a veteran of two Iraq wars since he served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.)

Three years ago, Abdul-Ali was working at a local post office when somebody came in shipping tiles to Iraq. Turns out, they were for the walls of a small synagogue Cutler was helping to build on the Al-Asad Naval Air Base in Iraq's Anbar Province. Curious about the project, the imam tracked down the rabbi's email address and began a correspondence that blossomed into a friendship.

The two men teamed up with Col. Jerry Lewis, the lead Chaplain for U.S. Africa Command. The U.S. State Department put together an itinerary for the three men -- a Protestant, Jew and Muslim -- for the second half of August that corresponded with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The fact that it fell during holy period allowed the religious leaders to take in iftar feasts -- in which Muslims typically open their homes -- in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

In addition to meeting with influential clerics, the three chaplains addressed student groups, sat for joint radio interviews and even attended an international contest of Koranic knowledge in Kenya, all along making the statement that deeply religious people from different faiths can work together in a common cause.

The trip just finished up last week.

"We are displaying, from the military perspective, the value of religious diversity and religious accommodation," said Lewis. "Religion is the source of reconciliation and hope and peace. That is very important and many of these religious leaders get it."

Cutler stated that, for the most part, there is a high degree of interaction between Muslim and Christian leaders in East Africa; the problem of mistrust and intolerance exists more on the grass- roots level.

Abdul-Ali, however, stated that the clerics he met with knew next to nothing about other faiths and seemed genuinely amazed at the number of common points.

"I am almost sure that there is a wall up there between the Muslims and the Christian," said Abdul-Ali, who was reached about halfway through his visit.

Abdul-Ali said that he used his radio appearances, which possibly reached hundreds of thousands of people, to educate African Muslims about the freedom afforded to all religious practitioners under the First Amendment.

"I'm not into the race card, I'm not into the hate thing. It's about the brotherhood of humanity," said the imam upon his return, which was delayed by a day because of Hurricane Irene.

His 60th birthday just might have been the most memorable of his life. He spent it with Cutler visiting with the Abayudaya, the Ugandan Jewish community that resides near the eastern town of Mbale. (Members of the small communinity converted to Judaism about a century ago.) On his birthday, Abdul-Ali broke the ramadan fast at a synagogue there. Afterwards, a Jewish family sang "Happy Birthday."

"I could have fell on the floor," he recalled at the incredulity of the scenerio. "It just goes to show that man plans but God is the planner."

While the overall goal of the Ramadan tour centered around relationship building and was not overly focused on tangible results, Cutler said he encouraged Christian and Muslim clerics to cooperate on microfinance initiatives, which would give individuals in poorer nations access to credit to start or grow small businesses.

On Saturdays, Cutler took time out to visit other Jewish communities in Ethiopia and Kenya. Most Christians and Muslims he encountered wanted to know more about Jews and Judaism, even if they had expressed concerns about Israel and its policies regarding the Palestinians.

Cutler said he often referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of what happens when clerics don't lead the way to reconciliation.

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