In the season when Christians sing of their hope for peace on earth, the Minnesota Council of Churches is stepping up its effort to promote interfaith peace and friendship in this state.

On Dec. 11, leaders of the council's 24 member churches -- mostly mainline Protestant denominations -- will meet with their counterpart "positional" leaders of at least eight non-Christian faith communities in Minnesota. They will host Shaykh Hafiz Muhammad Naqib Ur Rehman (Pir Saab) of Pakistan, a leading Sufi Muslim exponent of interfaith harmony and nonviolence who is making several stops in the Twin Cities next week.

The goal of the meeting is simple, yet profound. It's to deepen personal relationships between local leaders of diverse faiths, explained the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, Minnesota Council of Churches executive director. No joint proclamations are planned; no new organizational structure is being proposed -- at least, not initially.

Rather, Chemberlin said, the aim is the creation of informal but genuine bonds of friendship, of the sort that can lead to quick joint action and mutual support if and when interfaith harmony is threatened in Minnesota. "The relationships are central," she said. 

In some Minnesota locales and among lay people as well as clergy, interfaith relationships are already strong, she said. But there's added value when the people who have been chosen to speak for their faith communities know each other and can count on each other's public witness and personal support.

While no subsequent interfaith leadership meetings are yet planned, Chemberlin and the Council of Churches seem eager for more. Events like the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., which left six worshippers dead, inspire in them a sense of urgency. Their effort at local friendship-building should inspire in others a sense of hope.