Reaching out, church hires Muslim

During the 11:15 a.m. Eucharist on Sunday, the newest staff member at central Denver’s historic St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral will be formally installed.

He will walk to the steps before the altar. His qualifications will be discussed. The canon steward will recite the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”

Then, presuming everything goes as planned, a new chapter in interfaith relations will be written: A Muslim imam will join the staff of a Christian church, a first in Denver and perhaps nationally.

Ibrahim Kazerooni, a Shiite cleric, will direct the church’s fledgling Abrahamic Initiative, a bridge-building effort among Christians, Jews and Muslims. He will continue to head the Islamic Center of Ahl Al-Beit in west Denver.

“I really don’t feel out of place here,” said Kazerooni, an Iraq native who has proved to be an articulate voice for his faith since coming to Denver four years ago. “Whether it is a church, a synagogue or a mosque, it’s just the medium. The message is the work we do.”

Kazerooni won’t be paid a salary for serving as interim director of the Abrahamic Initiative, a program founded in the spring of 2001 and named for the biblical figure linking the three faiths. Instead, the church will cover a year’s tuition at Iliff School of Theology, where Kazerooni is pursuing a master’s in theology.

The initiative seeks to find the common ground of the three monotheistic faiths through public lectures and dialogues in private homes where people from each faith break bread and share stories.

“Our society is polarized,” said Greg Movesian, the cathedral canon and chairman of the initiative’s steering committee. “We want to get beyond that polarization. We hope this appeals to people who don’t look upon people of other religions as a target for conversion but rather potential partners in maintaining a civil society.”

“It’s a breakthrough,” he said of hiring Kazerooni, who previously took part in the program. “I don’t know if there is any other church in the country that has an imam on its staff.”

The 46-year-old Kazerooni steps into the job at a volatile time: The ghosts of 9/11, the Iraq war, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and disagreement over Yasser Arafat’s legacy are rubbing longtime fault lines among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Kazerooni said those issues aren’t to be avoided but addressed in good time. The first step is nothing more complicated than getting people together, he said.

“You need to establish trust,” he said. “Then the narrative of hatred will not be there, and at the end of the day, we can discuss a number of issues that are extremely critical but without that distrust.”

At the same time, Kazerooni risks backlash by taking a job in a church. Some Muslims on the far right, for instance, shun interaction with the broader society and view interfaith work as a compromise.

“I’ve experienced a lot in life, and I have grown to have a thick skin,” said Kazerooni, who was jailed and tortured in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, accused of spying for Iran. “What I care first and foremost about is whether I can be instrumental in doing something good. Whether my community understands it or not at this stage is irrelevant.

“I’m hoping one day they will understand if they see the result of action and change their mind.”

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