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Religious freedom is cause for celebration

This is a Christmas story about Jews and Muslims. It is about ancient peoples in a modern setting -- the Buffalo airport.

I was traveling last year on Christmas night, returning to New York City. Christmas, I thought, would be a good day for a non-Christian to be on the road. Christians would be in their homes; the airports would be empty.

I wasn't the only person with this idea. As my mother and I sat outside the boarding area, across from a Christmas tree, we noticed several men with bushy beards, black coats and black hats. Obviously Orthodox Jews. And several men with trimmed beards and white knitted skullcaps, accompanied by women in flowing robes. Obviously Muslims. How ecumenical, I thought.

It was an appropriate time for ecumenicity. Not only was it Christmas, but the first night of Hanukkah, and two weeks before the start of the Muslims' pilgrimage month. Past security, I sat near my gate, near a few of the Muslim men. Strangers, neither of us greeted the other.

An Orthodox man noticed my dark leather yarmulke and asked if I wanted to "daven maariv" -- take part in an impromptu evening prayer service after it grew dark. I said yes. Maariv would be in 20 minutes; the man pointed to a nearby corner of the terminal. I took a seat and opened a book.

In the meantime, some of the Muslim travelers had the same idea. Four men, led by one with the white skullcap, gathered in the corner. Behind the men was one woman in a long gown. One man spread a jacket on the floor in front of him, as a prayer mat. It was time for maghrib, the sundown services, the fourth of five that devout Muslims pray each day. The group turned toward the gift shop, facing in the direction of Mecca, and began chanting in Arabic. They cupped their hands, and prostrated themselves.

Bypassing travelers paid no notice. As Christmas carols played in the background, and an electric cart driver with a Santa's hat on his head drove by, an unfamiliar religious service was just another sign of America's openness to minority religions.

A group of Orthodox men, relaxing on seats near me, paid no attention. They chatted in Yiddish. Then it was time for maariv.

The Muslims were still praying, so our Jewish group, about a dozen teenagers and middle-aged men -- in Orthodox Judaism, the requirement to pray daily with a quorum is strictly male -- found an alternative place, in another corner, about 30 feet from the Muslim worshippers.

In both traditions, a worship service -- our tefilah, their salat -- requires neither a house of worship nor a member of the clergy. Just worshippers. We faced toward Jerusalem.

A clean-shaven teen at the front of our group led maariv. Standing, we prayed in Hebrew, some from memory, some from small prayer books. Again, none of the travelers passing through the security checkpoint seemed to notice.

Maariv was over in 15 minutes. We returned to our gates. The Muslims had finished maghrib. They were back in their seats. They noticed, but did not greet us.

We sat only feet apart, but neither reached out. We boarded our common flights, still strangers. United by monotheistic belief, we stayed divided as individuals. The freedom that allowed us to openly practice our faiths also allowed us to ignore each other.

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