The growth of Minnesota's Muslim population and the continuing misunderstandings of the Islamic faith have prompted metro-area religious leaders to make some significant changes to a decades-old tradition.

The Minnesota Council of Churches announced this week that it is retooling its Muslim Christian Dialogue series. Starting this month, it will focus less on theology and instead emphasize current issues facing the two faiths.

"In our current environment where Islam is in the news as much as it is and with a lot of stories that are confusing to people ... we thought it was time to react to some of those messages that are out there by bringing people who really are knowledgeable ... so they can talk on the topic," said Gail Anderson, a council director who organizes the series.

The next dialogue is set for Oct. 21 at the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley. Antony T. Sullivan, senior fellow for Mediterranean and Near East Programs at the Fund for American Studies, will speak on "Recent Developments in the Middle East and the Impact on the U.S."

When the council and the Islamic Center got together to start the series nearly 22 years ago, it mainly featured academics talking about differences in theology. But then Minnesota's Muslim population grew to 150,000, with some 40 mosques established. And then came 9/11, which "kicked up" fear about Islam, Anderson said.

Tensions still flare occasionally. In St. Anthony, City Council members recently rejected a proposal for an Islamic center after residents made anti-Islamic comments.

Such developments led to the changes the council announced this week. One of the key differences is that people who come will have a chance to talk with people of different faiths.

"When you start understanding people, you find out, 'These are Minnesotans and they're pretty concerned with the same things that most Minnesotans are concerned about,'" Anderson said.

Rose French • 612-673-4352