Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders in South Jersey signed a historic agreement of cooperation and understanding Wednesday at the Voorhees Islamic Center.
The document is the second of its kind in the nation.
Among those who signed the agreement were Bishop Joseph Galante, who heads the Camden Diocese, and Zia Rahman, managing director and trustee of the Muslim American Community Association in Voorhees.
The agreement contains five articles with commitments to uphold freedom of speech, thought, religion and conscience; to challenge religious and ethnic intolerance; to foster a deeper relationship; to build bridges between the two faith communities; and to establish a joint committee and Catholic-Muslim Institute to promote education about their faiths.
In a statement released before the signing, Galante called the agreement a "significant step toward deepening respect and understanding" between the two faiths.
During the ceremony, Galante said both faiths worship and acknowledge God in a culture that is increasingly secular. Galante and Rahman both credited God for enabling the two groups to agree.
"Without God, without faith, we are lost," Rahman said.
The first such agreement was forged in 2003 between Catholics and Muslims in the Rochester Diocese in New York.
The agreement has led to greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims there, said Deacon John Brasley, the ecumenical and interreligious officer for the diocese.
Other dioceses around the country have expressed interest in the interfaith agreement, Brasley said during a phone interview Wednesday. He applauded the South Jersey accord, calling it a "tribute to their dedication and their faith."
"It's not an easy thing to do, I can tell you," Brasley said. "It takes a lot of patience and prayer and some negotiation. It really takes a lot of listening and understanding to reach this kind of agreement."
Afsheen Shamsi, spokeswoman for the New Jersey affiliate of the Council on American Islamic Relations, was delighted.
"I think that's great," Shamsi said. "It's wonderful that people of faith should get together and talk about what we share in common, the values we share in common and how much our religions have in common. It's a wonderful step toward peace and will hopefully bring many good things."
In 2007, New Jersey Muslims reported a 25 percent increase in civil rights complaints and a 9 percent increase in hate crimes, Shamsi said.
She said she hopes the agreement will help the public realize Muslims have much in common with Christians and Jews. (MORE)