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Bridging the gap among religions...


THE CANDLES -- gentle metaphors for grief, remembrance, and solidarity -- will burn during 43 vigils in 22 states and four countries. There will be eight in New York, home to more than 2,000 of the dead, and three in Massachusetts, home to more than 200. For those gentler souls seeking something deeper than policy and politics, those who dare confront the most fundamental tenets of faith -- love and tolerance, not merely relief from sadness -- these Circles of Hope offer an occasion for Christians, Jews, and Muslims working together to remember the victims of horror. They also celebrate the rich heritage that they share and which some families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 believe fervently can be the basis for lasting solutions to violence. One of the largest will be on Boston Common Wednesday evening at 6, with music and short messages from representative of all three faiths.

In a chat the other day, Wright Salisbury reminded me of a word too little used in Americans' inter-religious dialogue -- Abrahamic, referring to the progenitor of all three faiths through his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham, Salisbury said, belongs to none and to all.

Salisbury lost his son-in-law that day. Ted Hennessey was 35, a management consultant from Belmont, who left his wife, Meredith, and two young children, Rachel and Matthew. He had been a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, from Boston to Los Angeles, the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. Now retired, Salisbury immediately put his house on the market in Irvington, N.Y., and moved with his wife, Melanie, to be near his daughter and her children in Lexington.

A soft-spoken man, he is both committed to the privacy so crucial to healing and to his newfound activism as a promoter of inter-religious tolerance. He tries to help his family perform that immense task, as he put it, "of both remembering and going on" and of sharing the insight the tragedy has given him. "I have made it my life's work," he said. "It has totally energized me, it is all-consuming, I suppose because of the way Ted died."

He is not alone. Several dozen families have also formed an organization, Peaceful Tomorrows, which supports peaceful solutions to religious strife. His own work (he had previously not ventured beyond village politics in New York) has created fresh energy in the religious tolerance movement. There is both an alliance and a Center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Understanding, which offer forums, visits to mosques, and other programs that stress what the religions share.

For obvious reasons, much of his focus lies in spreading understanding of Islam and its millions of faithful in this country.

"American Muslims are not the people who attacked us," he said. It should hardly need adding that neither did their faith or the faith of Muslims around the world. The occasionally fostered notion to the contrary borders on the obscene.

Bible-quoters, Koran-quoters, and Torah-quoters can all cite favorite passages of exclusivity, threats of violence and damnation, and even of prejudice. The alliance fosters the deeper truth that at the core of all three faiths lies the commandment of tolerance.

Christians and Jews share the obligation to love their neighbors as themselves, basic requirements that preclude intolerance. Less well-known in American culture (a fact groups like Salisbury's work day and night to change) is the message of Islam. Two stand out:

"Why do you dispute with us about God when He is equally your Lord and our Lord? To us belong our actions, to You yours, And we are true to Him." Or: "We believe what has been sent down to us, and we believe what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one. And to Him we submit." In its literature, the alliance summarizes what went wrong and what must go right far better than a political columnist could:

"Religion became an instrument of power, a cause for division among people who basically believed in peace and harmony. We look for differences instead of peace and harmony when we covet our neighbor's property.

"Well, it's time to stop stressing our differences and acknowledge the primacy of our common humanity, our shared love of life. It's time to fall on each other's shoulders and forgive and ask forgiveness for what has happened and to pledge to love each other. Forever."

That such messages and prodigious labor come from people who have suffered more than any outsider's ability to comprehend is beyond astonishing. This is the essence of the moral courage that the world mostly lacks, and it mocks most official efforts at understanding and moving on positively from the horror of two years ago.

The end will not come with "victories" over terrorism or perfection in what is now known as homeland security. It will come from the efforts of decent people like Salisbury who are trying to change hearts one at a time. Go light a candle with him tomorrow evening.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

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