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In Sanford and Cairo, a call to worship – and post-conflict peace

Egypt's Muslims began the holy month of Ramadan with some calling for national unity. In Sanford, Fla., pastors sought to heal a divided community after the George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict.

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    Pastor Joel Hunter, left, of Northland Church, arrives with Pastor Quintin Faison, center, of Rescue Church of God, and Pastor Marvin Scott, of Second Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, in Sanford, Fla. arrive in court to watch the George Zimmerman trial June 12.
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With tensions still high in Egypt after the military ouster of the elected president, Muslims on both sides of a sharp political divide nonetheless began to pray and fast last week in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In Sanford, Florida, too, after Saturday’s not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, churches across the city of 54,000 welcomed people to a special day of prayer on Monday. For months, a coalition of black and white religious leaders known as Sanford Pastors Connecting had worked together to help the city cope with issues surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Communities with large numbers of faithful are often challenged to bring healing in the face of violence and social friction. Religion is too often used to justify hatred or even killing. Most of the time, however, it serves as an opportunity for an entire people to forgive each other, do good deeds, and reflect on a need for God.

Whether the peaceful practice of Islam in Egypt or of Christianity in Sanford will eventually help resolve tensions in those places remains to be seen. But during prayerful rituals like Ramadan or Sanford’s special day of community worship, glimmers of hope sometimes emerge.

In Sanford, pastors were allotted four seats in the courtroom during the Zimmerman trial to help them better inform parishioners of the nuances of the case – beyond the sensationalism portrayed in mass media. And the pastors stepped up efforts to improve race relations and reach out to young people to help them avoid legal trouble. A post-verdict protest in Sanford was very small compared with those in big American cities.

“We need to rely on a perfect God who can give us his grace to act in a perfect way during difficult and perplexing times,” the Rev. Jeff Krall of Sanford’s Family Worship Center told the Orlando Sentinel after the verdict.

During this year’s observance of Ramadan, which started just after the military ouster of Mohamed Morsi, almost all Muslims in Egypt are practicing the dawn-to-dusk fast, sharing the traditional evening meal with family and friends, watching special TV miniseries, and praying at night. At the least, the month-long devotions might serve as a cooling-off period – even though the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood called on its followers to suspend Ramadan in favor of a jihad in the form of mass protests.

The holiday, which marks the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, will be a test for Egyptians of whether Islam can offer lessons on reconciliation and self-restraint. Ramadan’s rituals are infused with generosity, especially toward the poor. Its rhythms of self-denial put a focus on the well-being of others. It is a time for joy, not gloating over political victories or animosity toward opponents.

Last Friday, thousands of Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to take part in an iftar, or the holiday’s fast-breaking meal. The Islamic imam who gave a sermon in the square said he hoped the event would help end the nation’s divide.

“This iftar is a national unity meal in order for us to say that Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, make up one square and one nation,” said Mohamed Abdullah Nasser. Similar words might have been spoken in war-torn Syria.

Ramadan’s main lesson is patience, which Egyptians badly need now. In Sanford, too, churches are working to create a patience and a meekness that can mend the community. Prayer in such cases isn’t a timeout. It’s a time for the faithful to practice religion’s basic tenets of love.

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