Friday is a holy day for the faithful. Sunni Moslems stream into the mosque to pray. Across the street, Shiite dissidents kneel on the sidewalk for prayer and preaching. It could be Riyadh or Baghdad. But this is Washington in 1990.

There are more Moslems than Episcopalians in the city. There are more Moslems than Mormons or Adventists or Presbyterians in the United States. There are more Moslems -- 6 million -- than all but three religious denominations on the North American continent, if the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches is trustworthy.

There are obvious stories in these people. Who are they? Where have they come from and why? What are their emotions -- and their politics -- as the world's leading Christian nation poises for war with Iraq, the most powerful of Islam's Middle Eastern states? If war comes, will the Iraqi dead pass into paradise as martyrs in a holy war? Will the American dead rise into heaven, descend into hell or, reincarnated, come back to earth again? Or for all of them -- Christians and Moslems alike -- is it merely dust to dust ?

We in the "media" rarely contemplate or address such questions. But they are surely on the minds of Moslems and Christians, both here and abroad. I have no data on the religious convictions of the Moslem masses, but we have a great deal of Gallup data, stretching back many decades, on the beliefs of Americans:

94 percent believe in God or a universal spirit.

84 percent believe God answers prayers.

68 percent believe in life after death.

77 percent believe in heaven.

58 percent believe in hell.

24 percent believe in reincarnation.

We are as Tocqueville described us 150 years ago: "There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."

More than 140 million of us belong to a church, temple or mosque. Each week nearly 75 million of us attend a religious service. Since the early 19th century our missionaries have been planting the flag throughout the world, preaching the gospels, democracy and capitalism. They have inspired revolutions abroad, and at home, as author Garry Wills has said, "Religion has been at the center of our major political crises, which are always moral crises." Issues of war and peace, civil rights, sexual mores, abortion and social justice are always on the agenda.

With roughly 350,000 places of worship in the United States, religious bodies are omnipresent and influential in nearly all aspects of our lives. But the "media" have difficulty dealing with their presence. Mr. Wills has written of the press: "Some of the glibbest {journalists} in the nation are oddly tongue-tied when the Bible is brought up. ... Reporters {are encouraged} to acquire expertise in the law or economics, but I have not heard of any editor asking reporters to brush up their theology. ... Religion embarrasses the commentators. It is off bounds. ... It seems too much to ask journalists to read the Bible (of all things) to understand a Pat Robertson or Jesse Jackson -- or even a Dr. {Martin Luther} King." Or even a Jimmy Carter whose self-description as a "born again Christian" was received with mild embarrassment by a Washington press corps that found it amusing and hickish that a grown man would speak of "lust" in his heart.

The fall from grace of Jim and Tammy Bakker, the carnal sins of Jimmy Swaggart, the globetrotting of an amiable pope or the pronouncements of a religious lobbyist will catch our attention. Nevertheless, religion is not ordinarily a hot item with us, being relegated as often as not to its traditional Saturday ghetto, the "church page."

There are exceptions. Time magazine, some years ago, speculated at length over the question: "Is God Dead?" Newsweek's journalists, as a new episode in the serial coverage of their own generation, produced a lively account last week of the religion industry and of the return of the Baby Boomers to God.

But sustained inquiry and coverage are rare. Perhaps it is because we tend to be (like some clergymen) non- or semi-nonbelievers. Perhaps there is an unwritten tradition of deference in the news business that keeps us out of the deep waters of faith, doctrine and spirituality. The better explanation may be that as "realists" and "empiricists" we look on religion as we look on love and hate -- too much a part of us and the world to ignore but too elusive to explore.