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A week when faith can unite us

By John Borelli, Special to CNN
  • John Borelli says this week unusual: 9/11 anniversary, Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan overlap
  • Confluence comes during hot discourse over Islam, he says, but still many push for tolerance
  • Tensions come from our trying times, but holy days bring time for unity, he says
  • Borelli: Muslims, Christians, Jews break routine by fasting, consider what faith means
  • September 11 Attacks
  • Judaism
  • Islam
  • Christianity
  • Ramadan

Editor's note: John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives to Dr. John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University, served more than 16 years in ecumenical and interreligious relations at the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He serves also as national coordinator for interreligious dialogue for the U. S. Jesuit Conference.

(CNN) -- This is no ordinary week. Take a look at the calendar.

If you follow developments in the arena of religion and public life, you have probably noticed.

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the High Holy Days for Jews, falls this week, as does Eid Al-Fitr, the celebration of the breaking of the monthlong Ramadan fast for Muslims -- two special times of holiness for many Americans. Then, at week's end comes the ninth anniversary of 9/11, a day commemorated with sober religious and secular observance.

These important days have overlapped, coincidentally, during a time of heated religious controversy and discourse, and an upwelling of spiritual support, as well, centered largely around Islam.

The calendar confluence seems designed to offer an opportunity for hope, for re-aligning priorities, for soul-searching and commitment.

This was demonstrated for us in a number of remarkable interfaith statements of spiritual and civic solidarity made this week -- from Christians, Jews and Muslims, playing across TV screens in news broadcasts and coursing through cyberspace.

In Washington on Tuesday, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Union for Reform Judaism declared that it is no longer an option to be silent about growing animosity toward Muslims in our society.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick added that attacking one religion in America is attacking them all.

In New York, two imams joined two rabbis and three leading Christian clergy, including Timothy Dolan, Catholic archbishop of New York, to deplore the recent polarization and lack of civility and to affirm that anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity, or anti-Islam have no place in their communities.

Likewise in Chicago, Illinois, and Boston, Massachusetts, the same strong guidance was offered by religious leaders of all three traditions. The outpouring was truly notable.

And this is no mystery, given the long summer of broad national debate about Islam and the rights of Muslims.

The unfolding proposal to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan has been one focus. But Muslims in other cities are also encountering new difficulties as they try to build centers and mosques. The pastor of a small Christian community in Gainesville, Florida, the Dove World Outreach Center, threatened -- and then backed away from -- making September 11 "International Burn a Quran Day."

There is a reason these issues are so resonant and challenging for Americans.

Nearly every adult American knows what she or he was doing on that day in 2001. Especially for today's 20- and 30-year-olds, 9/11 is a defining event because they experienced it and other developments involving terrorism, uncertainty and war at such an impressionable age.

Such events (for an older generation it might have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy) set the tone for our lives and color our vision of ourselves, the world, God and whatever else is significant to us.

We Americans live in a self-centered, post-9/11 world. Heightened security complicates our lives; the amount of time we are daily on camera still surprises us. We are at war in the Middle East, struggling with an economic downturn, a depressed housing market, a tough jobs picture and polarization in our society growing more acute and heated each day.

Trying times. Worldwide poverty is on the rise, and violence afflicts so many in our world, whether through weather, more altered by climate changes, or human interventions that seem to leave less and less room for mercy.

When a small group commits violence against others, whether in the horrendous proportions of 9/11 or as an act of desecration against another's holy book, the world experiences the effects instantaneously and deeply. It wants to react, to respond.

But this year, we are fortunate to be able to view these extraordinary times together through the lens of our faith tradition, in our devotions and our shared humanity.

We become mindful. Fasting reminds Jews, Muslims and Christians to break with routine and re-consider what defines us for what we are and how we deal with present events as peoples of faith.

The Ramadan fast, following the lunar calendar, begins a few weeks earlier each year in the common calendar. It ends with the celebratory Eid Al-Fitr, or breaking of the fast.

In 2001 it fell on the weekend of December 15 and 16, just two months after the attacks. Pope John Paul II invited Christians to a special day of fasting with already fasting Muslims on December 14 -- the last Friday during Ramadan and the second Friday of Advent that year. He urged all to pray with fervor for a stable peace, based on justice, and for adequate solutions to present conflict -- among the deepest values of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Nine years later, Eid Al-Fitr coincides with Rosh Hashanah, when Jews begin their annual looking backward and forward, re-examining their lives and what is of real consequence to them in their relations within Judaism, with God and with the world.

Jews look ahead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which they will observe on September 18 with fasting and intense prayers. Muslims have acted similarly for a month, gathering in mosques to recite portions of the Quran, praying for others and straightening out themselves and God. Christians attempt this in Advent and more so during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter.

It is as though the coincidence of holy days and 9/11 at the end of Labor Day week this year drew Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders to unison as this important week began.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Borelli.