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Members of Washington's interfaith community gathered Sunday for a unity walk - an annual event aimed at promoting tolerance. Hundreds of people of different faiths visited houses of worship along a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue to learn about other religions. They also joined forces to sign up for community service.
A Jewish synagogue in Washington played host to live music and dance of different faiths Sunday to celebrate the start of the city's fifth annual Unity Walk.
Organizers say about 350 people gathered at the Washington Hebrew Congregation to hear music by a multicultural band. Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders urged the audience to learn more about each other's faiths.
"He is an imam and I am a rabbi and we are both simply teachers humble before God,' said the synagogue's Rabbi Bruce Lustig, who was among the speakers. "Hopefully, helping others to stop along the way, so that we can find out how strong we really are when we simply work together."
After setting off from the synagogue, participants in the unity walk were invited to enter several houses of worship along Massachusetts Avenue for the first time. Last year, only the synagogue and the Islamic Center of Washington opened their doors to the walkers.
The houses of worship that joined this year's event included Sikh and Buddhist temples, churches, and the Orthodox Christian Cathedral of St. Nicholas.
The cathedral's deacon, Father Patrick Mitchell, gave visitors a tour of the sanctuary.
"We generally leave this area open, because this where we read, this is where we do other things, this is where you would be married," he said. "If you were going to be married, you would be married here in the center of the church."
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Interfaith groups and their supporters established the Unity Walk as a way of combatting religious intolerance fueled by the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"Like with so many difficult instances in our history, what you want to do is take advantage of that and turn it so that it is forward looking," said William Davis, a Washington-based director of the United Nations Information Service. "And, when you get the sense of cooperation and common goals, common purposes among the people here today, you cannot help but see that this is something positive growing out of something that is such a tragedy."
The president of Washington's National Sikh Gurdwara, or temple, says Sikhs in the United States attracted some hostility after 9/11 because they wore turbans. But Satwant Kaur Bell says the unity walks have helped to dispel misconceptions about the Sikh religion.
"Now, we are always very curious about, 'What are they doing behind those closed doors,' you know," she said. "And, when you come and learn about the religion and learn about the people you really find that they are just one of us!"
One walker, who says he learned something new Sunday, is American Muslim Ali Ishaq from the northwestern state of Idaho.
"My brother and I were talking about how - normally you do not just walk up to a temple or a synagogue and say, 'hey, can I come in and take a look?' So this is a great opportunity and exposes me to a lot of things that I would not otherwise have been exposed to," said Ishaq.
Organizers say another aim of the walk is to recruit members of different faiths to join forces in community service projects to clean the environment and help the poor.
"Something like the Unity Walk, which brings all of the groups together - it is an opportunity for each of our groups to get our members more involved and more excited about interfaith efforts," said Stuart Levy, a co-founder of Olive Branch D.C., a Washington-based
interfaith group bringing together young professional Jews and Muslims.
Levy and his co-founder, Minha Kauser, recently attended an Iftar meal in which Jews joined Muslims who were breaking their daily fast during the holy month, Ramadan. They say they are planning more events for young Jews and Muslims in the coming months.