For members of the Nation of Islam, the highlight of their annual Saviour's Day weekend convention has always been the speech given by their controversial leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan. From all indications, his talk at this weekend's gathering in Chicago is likely to have implications that go far beyond the Nation's membership.

Farrakhan's speech, set for Sunday, will mark his reemergence onto the national stage after a yearlong sabbatical forced upon him by ill health. His carefully orchestrated return, according to those who have followed his career closely, will project an image of moderation and interfaith outreach--by itself a significant shift for a man long criticized for his often provocative comments about Jews, Catholics, whites, and others.

Particularly significant this weekend will be the participation of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, a longtime Farrakhan rival who leads a far more moderate group of African-American Muslims.

Muhammad, son of the late Elijah Mohammed--who first made the Nation a religious and social force within the black community--will attend a Nation-sponsored Friday prayer service, attend a dinner with Farrakhan that evening, and speak Saturday at another convention event.

Muhammad, whose four-decade-old relationship with Farrakhan has vacillated from friendly to wary to contentious, is expected to applaud Farrakhan for shedding some of the Nation's theology that has left traditional Muslims aghast ever since the organization's founding in Detroit in the 1930s.

Chief among these are the Nation's emphasis on race and insistence that an incarnation of Allah created the group--a heretical concept for orthodox Muslims.

In addition, Sayyed Sayeed, general secretary of the Islamic Society of North America, a leading immigrant Muslim organization, said that he would attend and speak at the Nation convention for the first time. Sayeed said he, too, expects Farrakhan to announce major shifts in Nation theology during the weekend.

Also attending the weekend gathering--and sitting prominently on the dais--will be a delegation of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests from Chicago who have cordial relations with Farrakhan, and representatives of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church are also scheduled to be present.

Prominent orthodox Islamic leaders from abroad have also been invited, though it remains to be seen who will show up.

The lineup of invited guests seems designed to show that Farrakhan can speak persuasively to people from all faiths. This may be part of a deliberate effort to distance Farrakhan from the Nation's more militant positions and redefine him as someone with influence and access to all quarters of the religious world.

That won't be easy to pull off and has the potential of alienating some longtime N.O.I. members. Said one Philadelphia follower of Imam Muhammad: "I would not want to be Louis Farrakhan. He has a very delicate act to perform; moving closer to true Islam while rejecting everything he's taught since 1979."

But for someone who is 65 and has suffered from poor health for at least a year, this could be one way--maybe the only way--to buff up a legacy that, until now, has guaranteed he would be largely remembered outside the Nation as a bigot and rabble-rouser.

If Farrakhan's statements at a December press conference are to be believed, he now deeply regrets the harsh words he has said about others over the years. Referring to the catharsis of a near-death experience he had while battling prostate cancer, he pledged to devote the rest of his life to helping others, regardless of their race or creed.

"When God acts to purify your heart," he vowed, "then your service after such a trial will be greater."

Never one to tilt their hand in advance, N.O.I. officials are predictably noncommittal about what Farrakhan will say this weekend. James Muhammad, editor of The Final Call, the Nation's newspaper, said the weekend "will interest anyone interested in religion." That comment could be interpreted as implying that the weekend could have a watershed theological component, or simply that Farrakhan's return to public life will signal a hoped-for invigoration of the Nation.

There is widespread suspicion about Farrakhan's sincerity in any of this.

Not surprisingly, the Anti-Defamation League, which has waged an anti-Farrakhan campaign for almost 20 years, is among the doubters.

But also dubious are many African-Americans and Muslims with no ties to the Nation. They see the upcoming speech as just another hustle for respectability from the man they call a master chameleon.

"We've heard Farrakhan say too many times that he's changed and seen the light," scoffed Earl El-Amin, a Baltimore follower of Imam Muhammad. "We pray he'll come to the proper understanding of Islam, but I believe little of what he says."

This will be the second consecutive year that Imam Muhammad has attended Friday worship at Saviour's Day. The imam's Muslim American Society claims about 2.5-million members (compared with the Nation's approximately 25,000 to 50,000 members).

After his father died in 1975, Muhammad disbanded the Nation and steered its ex-members toward more traditional Islam, which teaches racial equality. Two years later, Farrakhan recreated the Nation of Islam, embracing, once again, Elijah's race-based teachings.

Still to RSVP about their attendance are the imam, or prayer leader, of the Ka'bab, the Mecca shrine that is the holiest Islamic site in the world; the grand sheik of Al-Azhar, a leading Muslim university in Cairo; the grand mufti of Egypt; and the grand sheiks of Pakistan, Kuwait, and Senegal. The likelihood of the Egyptian Muslim leaders showing up in Chicago this weekend is perhaps even less than that for the others because of the visit to Egypt this weekend of Pope John Paul II.

Certain to attract the most attention are eight rabbis from a Jewish anti-Zionist group called Neturei Karta. It is doubtful that the presence of this particular group of Jews will heal 16 years of feuding between Farrakhan and much of the Jewish world. Neturei Karta is as much an outcast among Jews as Farrakhan is to most of the world. Immediately after the group's first meeting with Farrakhan, the A.D.L. called Neturei Karta "the pariahs of the Jewish community for...condoning...the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people."

A Neturei Karta spokesman, Rabbi David Weiss, said the group will attend "as a show of friendship between Blacks and Jews. We hope it will improve relations between the two groups." Weiss also said he agreed with Farrakhan's claim that his statements since the 1980s about Jews have been misconstrued by the A.D.L .and other Jewish organizations.

Rabbis from Neturei Karta, which means "Guardians of the City," have met three times since June with Nation officials: once at the N.O.I.'s Chicago restaurant, The Salaam, with Leonard Muhammad, the Nation's chief of staff; in November with Farrakhan at his Chicago mansion; and in December, when Leonard Muhammad visited them in Monsey, N.Y., a town 30 miles north of Manhattan that is one of their U.S. enclaves. The rabbis initiated the meeting to persuade the Nation to ask Iran to release 13 Jews accused of spying for Israel.

With its unique cast of characters--anti-Zionist rabbis, moderate Muslim imams, Christian priests, and, of course, Farrakhan himself--this Saviour's Day weekend promises to be among the more dramatic in the Nation's 70-odd years.

For N.O.I. members, it will exhilaratingly celebrate Farrakhan's physical return to his ministry. For the rest of the world, it may be the ultimate test of the man's sincerity and truth-telling--and his desire to join the commonwealth of nations that lie beyond his own singular, idiosyncratic "nation"--the Nation of Islam.

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