The faithful of many faiths gathered last night in Montgomery County to speak words of peace and welcome in Arabic, to chant Buddhist prayers and read Old Testament Psalms. They spoke in many tongues, but all called out to God for the same purpose: relief for the victims of the deadly South Asian tsunami.
Gathering at an interfaith prayer service at the Muslim Community Center in Colesville, worshipers who included representatives of the Hindu, Hebrew, Muslim and Christian traditions sat side by side to hear sacred texts and listen to words of unity and encouragement in the face of catastrophe.
The service drew people of various religions, including the Hindu, Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian faiths. Prayers were offered in several languages for victims of the devastating tsunami in South Asia.
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"When tragedy strikes, it doesn't discriminate with certain kinds of faith," said Faraz Zubairi, a director at the Muslim center, who presided.
Spiritual leaders, male and female, reminded their audience that although prayer serves always to unite believers, this is especially true in times of tragedy and disaster.
Clad in robes of gold and orange, three Buddhist monks offered sonorous chants, their voices sounding as one. A Ukrainian Orthodox priest reminded the crowd of more than 100 that unity should not wait for times of trouble.
Speakers and listeners seemed to form a United Nations of costume and ornament: robes, saris, burqas and crosses. They walked in tennis shoes, or with the aid of canes. Their faces were white and brown, light and dark.
All seemed somber as they bowed their heads in prayer. The United Nations has estimated that the number of dead will exceed 150,000.
"I believe with all my heart our prayers will ascend up to heaven like a sweet aroma," said the Rev. Paulette M.E. Stevens of the Montgomery Hospice.
Imam Adil Khan, of the community center, drew on the Koran for the words that opened the service: advice for those who face trials from God, bringing fear or the possible loss of life or property.
Spoken in a rhythmic Arabic, his words, as translated into English, reminded listeners to persevere, even when confronted by calamity, because "to God Almighty we belong and to him we will return."
"You and me have a huge task in front of us -- and that is to manifest peace on the face of the Earth," Khan said.
Various church leaders said their congregations had formed relief funds, and they urged those present to give generously. They asked that contributions be made in cash, explaining that the costs are prohibitive for sending such items as food or clothing.
Officials from the embassies of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, nations where the impact of the tsunami has been particularly severe, told of the latest ravages faced in their countries. They also thanked the people of the world for their humanitarian aid and support.
Harry Purwanto, deputy chief of mission for the Indonesian Embassy, said 400-year-old villages had been swept into the sea, along with the homes of 500,000 people, while more than 90,000 lost their lives.
The crowd groaned with shock and sadness.
In describing the difficulties in his homeland, he said even the government apparatus, which might be expected to organize relief efforts, had been afflicted by the terrifying wave.
"Now," he said to those at the service, "the situation is terribly somber."
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.