Interfaith Awareness Week 2008
Religions Celebrate Human Rights

By Laura Salinger

     As the holiday tree at the State Capitol reached upwards towards the gilded ceiling, the resonant chanting of Arabic filled the second floor rotunda on Dec.
10 when a Muslim call to prayer kicked off the Interfaith Awareness Week Capitol Celebration. In 1998, Wisconsin became the first state to proclaim an Interfaith
Awareness Week in an effort to honor religious freedom and bridge religious traditions statewide. For seven years, a capitol celebration has brought together
numerous faith traditions every December to affirm religious diversity and gather in the spirit of unity.
“We live in a global society where faith traditions, religions and spiritualities collide,” says Interfaith Awareness Week co-coordinator and Holy Transfiguration
Malankara Orthodox Mission priest Rev. Father John-Brian Paprock. “We need to engage in the space between our faith traditions, so that rather than colliding
and fighting, there can be peace.”
    Christmas tends to dominate December as holiday lights, Christmas trees, carols, and weary shoppers pepper the whitening landscape. Yet, numerous other
worldwide religions celebrate varying holidays this time of year. There is Hanukkah, the Wiccan or Pagan Winter Solstice, the cultural celebration Kwanzaa, and
the Muslim holiday Eid-Ul-Adha, to name a few. There is also the sense that the December holiday season marks a time to come together in goodwill, peace
and unity, regardless of religious affiliation.
    Solstice singers from the Circle Sanctuary, Temple of Diana and Tiger’s Eye Temple gathered around the microphone to share yuletide carols that Rev.
Selena Fox described as “transcending sectarian religious affiliation.” Rev. Fox, Greater Madison Interreligious Association president and Circle Sanctuary senior
minister, recommended (with a smile) renaming the Capitol’s holiday tree. “We’ll rename it the holidays’ tree,” she said. “With the sentiment that there are many
holidays celebrated by many faith traditions, we thought we would perform an interfaith sharing of songs.”
Women with Wings from the Sufi Order of the West were also on hand to share their soaring voices; Sunil Sankara performed a Kathak Indian Dance; Rev. Tina
Miller, from Tiger’s Eye Temple, performed a Solstice Blessing; and Rev. Father John-Brian Paprock touched on human rights and spiritual development.
Interfaith Awareness Week deliberately coincides with the United Nation’s Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). This year’s Interfaith Awareness Week celebration
commemorated the 60-year anniversary of a global Human Rights Day. “The idea of fundamental human rights is not 60 years old,” Rev. Paprock attested.
“However, we acknowledge and celebrate the 60th anniversary of a universal declaration of human rights that was attested and affirmed by the fledgling United
Nations in 1948.”
    Rev. Paprock touched on the fact that religion has sometimes served as a divisive, rather than uniting, force in the world. Human Rights Day and other such
initiatives have worked to combat this division. “Despite the ‘God confusion’ that has been with humanity for so long, 60 years ago, a declaration of common
human rights was affirmed by people from all over the face of the earth; by people speaking different languages, having different cultural and religious
traditions,” Rev. Paprock said.
    In it is this spirit that Interfaith Awareness Week works to unite people who, although religiously different, share in the fundamental desire for a better, peaceful
world. “Our focus has shifted,” Rev. Paprock said. “We are not so much interested in building a tower to heaven, but rather in building bridges. Bridges built upon
universal human rights connect scattered peoples across chasms of diversity. I believe every bridge that we build makes a better world for all of us.”
    The event culminated when the large crowd gathered together hand-in-hand to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Some sang with eyes closed, their heads tilted
upwards. Others smiled at their neighbors as they sang, “We’ll walk hand in hand someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we’ll walk hand in hand someday.”
    In addition to the celebration at the State Capitol, an Interfaith Awareness Week display — “World Religions in Wisconsin” — adorned the State Capitol’s
second floor rotunda from Dec. 8-13, serving as a visual testament to the religious diversity that abounds in our own backyards. From Buddhism to Judaism to
Sikhism to a number of Christian or Pagan traditions, Wisconsin’s religious organizations came out to share their stories and beliefs. The Middleton Sikh
Gurdwara hosted a third annual Good Neighbor Interfaith Celebration and other interfaith events took place at the Madison Baha’i Center, the Circle Sanctuary
Nature Preserve, and the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Wisconsin. Next year’s Interfaith Awareness Week will take place Dec. 6-12.