For years, Roman Catholic leaders have forged warm and friendly ties with Imam W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the Chicago-based Muslim American Society, the nation's largest body of African-American Muslims.
Mohammed has become a friend of Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, who in 1996 escorted the son of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad to Rome to meet Pope John Paul II. The next year, Mohammed invited Chiara Lubich, founder of Focolare, a worldwide lay spiritual movement of 2 million Catholics, to speak at Harlem's Malcolm Shabazz Mosque.
Tomorrow, in an event signaling a deepening of that relationship, Mohammed and Lubich will appear at an interfaith gathering in Washington that is expected to attract as many as 10,000 people.
Keeler is to introduce Mohammed at the event, "Faith Communities Together," which is being sponsored by Mohammed's Muslim American Society and Lubich's Focolare Movement, at the Convention Center. Organizers said the event is an attempt to build on trust and good feeling from the 1997 meeting.
"Ever since then, ... a very fruitful and good and conscientious relationship has developed, with people visiting one another in meetings, conventions and homes," said Gary Brandl, a Focolare spokesman. "A real friendship developed."
That led to a desire to open up the interaction to others, he said.
"A year ago, the imam said the relationship has grown so much between African-American Muslims and Catholics that he wanted a larger event to present this to as many people as possible," Brandl said.
The Muslim American Society, the nation's largest Islamic body, has an estimated membership from several hundred thousand members to more than a million.
Mohammed took over the Nation of Islam after his father's death in 1975, abandoning its black separatist teachings and embracing the more orthodox Sunni Islam, which has a more inclusive theology. He changed the name of the group several times, most recently adopting the Muslim American Society in 1997.
Two years after Elijah Muhammad's death, Louis Farrakhan resurrected Nation of Islam, which has 20,000 to 30,000 members.
Focolare, founded by Lubich in 1943 in Italy, has evolved into a lay spiritual group of about 5,000 core members who live in small communities and take vows similar to those taken by priests, brothers and nuns.
The closeness between Catholics and the American Muslim Society can be partly attributed to Keeler, an influential ecumenist, and to the Focolare Movement, which has the pope's respect.
Keeler first met Mohammed in 1995, when Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who is a Vatican expert on relations with Islam, visited Baltimore, and Muslim leaders were invited to meet with him. Mohammed asked if he could meet with the pope during his 1995 visit to Baltimore. Keeler told him there would be no time then but agreed to arrange a meeting with Pope John Paul in Rome. At a general audience at St. Peter's Basilica, "I introduced him and others in his group," Keeler said. "They had a wonderful exchange."
Keeler also told Mohammed about Focolare, which the cardinal has long admired. Mohammed contacted the group in Chicago, leading to the first meeting with Lubich. Part of the reason for Mohammed's attractiveness to Catholic officials lies in his personality, religion scholars say.
"He's been eclipsed in the media by Mr. Farrakhan so much so that for a long time your average American had no sense of his leadership and the number of people he's led vis-a-vis the much smaller representation Mr. Farrakhan had," said John L. Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.
"I find him very disarming, low-key, soft-spoken, humble in the best sense of the term," Esposito said. "I think the comfort level that clergy have with him is a combination of his personality and his religious/spiritual approach."
Keeler would seem to agree. "I admire his leadership," the cardinal said. "I'd say we're friends."