U.S. Jews to Begin Dialogue With Asian Islamic Leaders

American Jewish leaders are to meet today in Kazakhstan with local leaders and other top officials from neighboring central Asian republics.

"This is the place to build a firewall between Islamic fundamentalism and moderate Islam," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive deputy director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Ronald Lauder, the former chairman of the Conference of Presidents and a prominent investor and philanthropist in the countries of the former Soviet Union, is leading the mission of some 50 American Jewish representatives.

Among the regional statesmen with whom they hope to meet today are Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, the presidents of Tajikistan and Kajistan, and senior ministers from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan.

The Jewish group will be bringing messages of support from U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Hoenlein said that Bush had been personally involved and supportive in preparations for the mission. Sharon has sent two representatives to accompany the mission and Israeli diplomats serving in the region will attend the various meetings and briefings.

"Many of these states have been encroached upon by Islamic fundamentalism operating out of Iran, Afghanistan and even China," Hoenlein said. "There is a domino threat in the region. If one state falls, its neighbors could go too."

The central Asian republics were trying to fend off these influences, Hoenlein said, and they sought "not money, but love and attention from the West." Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents had begun its discreet diplomatic overtures toward central Asia back in the mid-1990s.

"I went first to Yitzhak Rabin to discuss this," Hoenlein said, adding that the conference sent a mission to Uzbekistan in 1996 and that it was, in part, thanks to the success of that venture that Uzbekistan established diplomatic relations with Israel the following year. "Sometimes we can have access to places before the Israeli government."

Hoenlein noted that there was "potentially more energy in the Caspian basin than in the Persian Gulf." This made the regional countries "juicy targets" for hostile takeovers, but it also offered them a bright future for modernization and democratization, he continued. "The money that will flow will change these countries."

The Jewish leaders will meet tomorrow with top executives of U.S. energy firms active in central Asia and the Kazakh Minister of Energy Vladimir Shkolnik, himself Jewish. The four-day mission will also include talks between the Jewish leaders and local Muslim clerics. Hoenlein said the aim was to help head off the much-feared "clash of civilizations" and to encourage "the beginning of dialogue between civilizations, as these Muslim clerics themselves call it."

The American Jewish leaders will be hosted by the heads of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, led by Alexander Mashkevitz, who heads the 20,000-strong Kazakh Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents will present a Torah scroll to the local Jewish community, which, until now, according to Hoenlein, has had to make do with only one serviceable scroll.