Muslims who want to become an imam in the U.S. can now train at an institution founded in the 18th century by members of the Congregationalist denomination to prepare pastors and other Christian ministers for service.
Hartford Seminary is launching a new "Graduate Certificate in Imam Education" program this spring, with help from the seminary's Duncan Black MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, the Fairfax Institute and the Fairfax Institute's parent, the International Institute for Islamic Thought, or the IITT
The Hudson Institute's Hillel Fradkin says he's concerned about the move, because the IIIT is a front group of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned most of the leading terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and Hamas.
"If the Hartford Seminary program is being done through the IIIT, that is rather worrisome," said Fradkin, senior fellow of the D.C.-based think tank's Center for Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World.
Christopher Holton of the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington agreed the IIIT represents a radical version of Islam.
"IIIT is a Wahhabi organization. The Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam is among the most intolerant, hateful and aggressive religious cults in the entire world. The Hartford Seminary has been snowed due to their apparent ignorance, and this is a disservice to America, as well as peaceful and tolerant people of all faiths," he said.
He called the move "an unfortunate continuation of a disturbing pattern of misguided American Christian leaders choosing to do interfaith outreach with jihadist Muslim Brotherhood organizations."
He said it isn't the first time a Christian leader has taken such a step.
"First we saw the Rev. Rick Warren speaking at ISNA's (Islamic Society of North America) convention last summer, and now we have this episode. Choosing the IIIT for interfaith outreach is a betrayal of Christian principles." Holton said.
Hartford Seminary was founded in 1833 when a group of Congregational ministers opened a school that later assimilated several other institutions and became a founding member of the American Association of Theological Schools.
It features the Hartford School of Missions, which train missionaries.
The seminary opened its doors to the first Muslim on its core faculty in the 1990s, shortly after a decision had been made to pursue "Christian-Muslim relations."
Now it is advertising on its website the new program as a way to prepare men to be spiritual leaders in an Islamic community or mosque. School spokesman David Barrett said the goal is to help leaders understand their faith.
"Education for imams, as well as education for any religious leaders, is important to help them understand their faith better and to ground them in the context of religion in America," Barrett said.
"Obviously, at a seminary we teach education and religion. We believe that if you are educated you will be better able to be a religious leader in whatever faith you are in," Barrett said.
He said the IIIT came to the seminary with the suggestion for the outreach.
"They suggested to us that this might be a good place to start a program because of their connections with the imams in the greater Washington, D.C., area," Barrett said.
"We thought that made sense. And yes, they are a partner with Hartford Seminary, because they bring their own expertise with them," Barrett said.
Holton warned, however, that the program ultimately has national security implications.
"In choosing jihadist entities for interfaith outreach, people like Rev. Warren and institutions like Hartford Seminary enable our adversaries and grant them undeserved legitimacy," he said. "This can only further the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood to insert Shariah law into the United States – a theo-politico-legal doctrine diametrically opposed to American ideals of liberty."
Fradkin said the most militant of the Muslim Brotherhood's front groups is the Muslim Student Association, the MSA.
The MSA, he pointed out, was "the original expression of the Muslim Brotherhood in this country."
"Muslim students set it up as a student organization, but the founders were all Muslim Brotherhood," Fradkin said.
The MSA is established on many campuses, and in the absence of any other Muslim student group, they have the affiliation of all of the school's Muslim students, Fradkin said.
"One of the most egregious is the chapter and the University of California-Irvine. They've been particularly active and radical," he noted.
The Muslim Brotherhood strategy for the U.S. isn't complicated, said Fradkin.
"The Muslim Brotherhood's stated goal is to turn every location where it exists into an Islamic state, including the United States," he said.
The Brotherhood's aims are documented in reports from the NEFA Foundation, established to fight against terror through research, analysis and dissemination of information.
The NEFA Foundation quotes from a 1991 Muslim Brotherhood document entered as evidence in the trial of the Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation, which was convicted in 2008 of funding Hamas and other terrorist groups. In the document, the Brotherhood was clear on its plan for the U.S.
"The Ikhwan (the Brotherhood) must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and 'sabotaging' its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and Allah's religion is made victorious over all other religions," the report said.
Fradkin noted the director of Hartford Seminary's Muslim chaplain training program is listed as Ingrid Mattson, who also is president of ISNA.
The American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin shares Fradkin's concern about the status Hartford Seminary gives to such groups.
"The real problem is the legitimacy that many in the U.S. government give to the most radical organizations. These organs then use their U.S. government connections to broaden outreach to the U.S. Muslim community by saying that their contacts show that they are the ones who can deliver," Rubin said.