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Such rapprochement, especially involving Muslims, has been trickier in the past 12 months. Interfaith advocates say that after the attacks, many plans for Jewish-Muslim conversations fell through. One group that bucked the trend was the Children of Abraham Institute, a Charlottesville, Va., association that organizes intensive three-way scriptural studies modeled on Abraham's hospitality to the strangers at his tent. It has held meetings in Denver and at England's Cambridge University and has sent representatives to lecture in Cape Town, South Africa, and parley with imams in Malaysia. It has the ear of the incoming Archbishop ofCanterbury. At one of its gatherings last October, University of Virginia professor of Islamic studies Abdulaziz Sachedina expressed an interfaith ideal when he contended that people of faith can "control" their respective interpretations of Abraham's story "so that it doesn't become a source of demonization of the other."
As the anniversary of Sept. 11 passed, several new enterprises inaugurated similar efforts. In Portland, Ore., a group called the Abraham Initiative began a two-year, citywide interfaith program. The venerable, Protestant-founded Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York is starting an open-ended Abraham Program involving lectures and trifaith panels. A participant in several such efforts is Feiler. At the end of Abraham, its author announces that understanding how each faith, and seemingly each generation, concocts its own Abraham has liberated him to create his own, whom he whimsically calls "Abraham No. 241." This Abraham, he says, "is perceptive enough to know that his children will fight, murder [and] fly planes into buildings." But he also knows that "his children still crave God, still dream of a moment when they stand alongside one another and pray for their lost father and for the legacy of peace among nations that was his initial mandate from heaven."
It is a historical oddity and a hopeful sign that as the three religions battled over Abraham, they continued (without admitting it) to swap Abraham stories. The borrowings and counterborrowings, as old as the conflicts, make far more pleasant reading. The most heartening may be an Islamic tale cited by Feiler whose roots, scholar Reuven Firestone hypothesized, reach into both Judaism and Christianity. It is set after Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, whichever son it was. The moment of truth is just past; the father's hand is stayed. As the boy lies stunned on the altar, God gazes down with pride and compassion and promises to grant his any prayer. "O Lord, I pray this," the boy says. "When any person in any era meets you at the gates of heaven--so long as they believe in one God--I ask that you allow them to enter paradise." --With reporting by Azadeh Moavevi/Tehran, Nadia Mustafa/New York, Matt Rees and Jamil Hamad/Hebron and Eric Silver/Jerusalem Judaism Islam Christianity