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Clerics overcome fear and suspicion to build bridges of understanding

Just hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while the nation was convulsed with fear and anger, a Turkish imam was breaking his Ramadan fast in the company of a Universalist Unitarian congregation in Lexington.

That Muslim imam was Salih Yucel, director of the Boston Dialogue Foundation, which until last week was based in Medford. The person who left him a voice mail message inviting him to an evening prayer for the terrorist victims was the Rev. Lucinda Duncan, minister of the Follen Community Church.

In the two years since, the paths of Yucel and Duncan, and those of their congregations, have remained close. The two religious leaders have brought together members of their communities for monthly public talks and annual Ramadan dinners. They have raised money for Afghan children and even planned joint trips to Turkey.

The cataclysmic events of Sept. 11 created or reaffirmed friendships between disparate faiths in this country, and that trend hasn't disappeared. Mosques still receive dozens of requests for members to speak about Islam, and civic and religious groups are still organizing events for people of many faiths to discuss such topics as forgiveness and reconciliation.

Muslims in America trying to balance cultural integration and retention of their ethnic identities were faced with new challenges after Sept. 11. Among them was having to defuse what to some people was a link between Islam and terrorism.

"Ignorance is the mother of prejudice," said Yucel. "The image of Islam is not very good, and we still have to do a lot of work to change that." That was one of the reasons he decided to visit the Follen community that night, he said.

Mary Lahaj, a public speaker for the Islamic Center of Boston who has given more than 100 speeches about her religion in the past 18 months, said just learning about Islam "has been a huge learning curve for Americans. People have started to come out wanting to get to know us, and now they really want to know more, beyond Islam 101."

That initiative has "really evolved into an interfaith engine," she said.

Yucel and Duncan hope to fuel that trend by promoting their Ramadan annual interfaith dinner beyond the doors of their congregations. Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims, when fasting is observed during daylight hours. The observance began on Oct. 27 and runs until late November.

For the past six months, the clerics and a few others have compiled a list of 250 guests -- followers of Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca, and Christianity, and members of groups involved in interfaith work -- to join them tonight in Cambridge for a celebration of Ramadan and interfaith communion.

"We hope that we have become an example," said Yucel of his congregation's relationship with Duncan and the Lexington church. "We have learned to understand each other -- to respect each other at least -- by having discourse."

But that kind of trust is built over time, Duncan said. "You don't just go charging in, you are curious. It's not a hobby. It's a dance and it's a ritual of respect."

Their initial meetings as a group were imbued with "nervousness," she said. But to melt the ice, and the reservations of some Follen members who did not want to talk to Muslims, Duncan let a dialogue expert who is also a church member run a brainstorming session about religious stereotypes for Muslims and Unitarians. Over time, the groups grew closer, especially during large meals when small conversation often leads to congeniality.

The Boston Dialogue Foundation, which mainly offers religious support to Turks and holds interfaith talks with two churches in Brookline and Winchester, moved this month to Broadway in Revere, after operating for three years in an office on Main Street in Medford. It was in those cramped quarters that Turkish students and families had celebrated holidays, and where they had hosted their friends from the Follen Community Church.

Such initiatives are still being tracked by research entities such as the Pluralism Project, affiliated with Harvard University. Interfaith groups were well known in the 1990s, said Diana Eck, the project's director, but given the renewed interest since Sept. 11 -- from small town to larger urban initiatives -- the project is expanding its research to keep up with the pace of new or expanding groups.

"Because of the increased value and because this represents new instruments of relationship in our public square," said Eck, "I think [interfaith organizations] will become increasingly important as America comes to terms with our growing religious diversity."

Also this month, the Alliance for Jewish-Christian-Moslem Understanding and the Concord Clergy-Laity Group are sponsoring a gathering of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups at Kerem Shalom in Concord. Lahaj will speak about "Forgiveness & Reconciliation" on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., as will the Rev. Austin Fleming of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Concord, and Rabbi Michael Luckens of Karem Shalom.

Lahaj does not know how much the conversation will delve into political issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, which she says is always "the elephant in the room" when Jews, Muslims, and Christians get together to talk about serious topics. But in her experience, interfaith groups get through these topics by pointing out "more similarities than differences" among the groups.

"I think the media is giving the extremists in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity a lot of play in the center stage, and it's so misleading. What's really going on at the grass-roots level is that people are really getting to know one another," she said of interfaith groups in the last two years. Their work, she added, is likely to tackle more difficult issues as it continues to evolve.

"That's the writing on the wall -- we are heading in this direction," she said.

Angelica Medaglia can be reached at

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