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LDS, Islamic leaders share relief efforts

From assistance provided in the wake of the devastating December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the emergency relief responses following the May 2006 Indonesian earthquake, the LDS Church and Islamic Relief have proved to be provident partners.

Such successes of past partnerships, as well as shared principles to care for the poor and needy, have The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Islamic Relief USA looking forward to long-lasting associations.

"One hand cannot clap by itself — you've got to have a good partnership," said Diana Sufian, a senior humanitarian consultant for Islamic Relief.

Sufian joined Islamic Relief USA founder and senior advisor Ahmad El Bendary and chief operating officer Abed Ayoub in Salt Lake City last week at the invitation of the LDS Church, touring facilities and visiting with church leaders.

Which begged the question: Are both sides are willing to continue?

El Bendary recalled being asked that same question four years ago in Islamabad, Pakistan, following a joint LDS-Islamic Relief project there. "I said to them, 'I hope it's a partnership for life.' "

Ayoub, who made his first-ever visit to Salt Lake City last week, said in recent meetings with the Jordanian government, "the church was really highlighted in the talks."

Islamic Relief USA is part of the larger Islamic Relief Worldwide family, the latter celebrating its 25th anniversary and the former being founded in 1993. Islamic Relief is one of some 1,500 officially registered non-government organizations and charitable agencies across the world with which the LDS Church partners in welfare and humanitarian efforts.

After the December 2004 tsunami resulted in nearly 230,000 people dead or missing and another 1.7 million displaced, the LDS Church joined Islamic Relief and other organizations in providing immediate supplies, such as water, food, hygiene kits, medical supplies, body bags, blankets and clothing.

Subsequent long-term assistance included constructing homes, schools, health clinics and water and sanitation systems, as well as helping restore or improve employment skills and equipment.

In May 2006, Islamic Relief provided a Boeing 747 jumbo jet to transport the $1.6 million of relief supplies provided by the LDS Church after the Indonesian earthquake killed nearly 5,800 and left another 1.5 million homeless.

"We know the area, we know the people — and the church had the commodities," said Sufian, who long has been Islamic Relief's primary contact with the LDS Church. "The church said 'Let's do it.' And they did, with no strings attached, no price tag and no attempts at conversion."

Added El Bendary: "The church has been welcomed (globally) with open arms because of their neutrality."

Islamic Relief USA is primarily a fundraising organization that supports efforts worldwide. However, domestic efforts range from its extensive involvement following Hurricane Katrina to the annual "Day of Dignity" — in conjunction with Islam's Ramadan, the monthlong period of dawn-to-dusk fasting — that helps provide food, clothing and other assistance to the homeless and poverty stricken.

The three underscored the principle of zakat, the third pillar of Islam in which Muslims donate 2.5 percent of their annual savings, 10 percent of their investment net profits and a third of the produce or crops from their agricultural efforts.

"It's an obligation, a must," said Ayoub, adding that additional charity — up to a third of one's income — is also encouraged.

"Islamic Relief is dedicated to relieving poverty all over the world," he said. "We focus on the human as a human … We are a pure humanitarian organization, regardless of race, religion or color."

Fasting, donations, interests in welfare and humanitarian efforts are tenets shared by both faithful Muslims and Mormons.

"We have more in common than we have differences," said Nate Leishman, manager of the LDS Church's Humanitarian Emergency Response who accompanied the Islamic Relief leaders last week.

Sufian agreed. "This is God's work, whether it be in the language of Islam or the language of the Mormons. It's a moral obligation. We can do it — so we must do it."