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Americans, in Crisis, Turn to Prayer

Experts say it may offer health benefits along with spiritual relief

THURSDAY, Sept. 13, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- As Americans try to come to grips with the terrorist attacks Tuesday on New York and Washington, many are turning to prayer to help them cope with the trauma.

A random look at houses of worship in the affected cities shows that many have been overwhelmed with people seeking comfort in their deities.

"We're fielding reports from the local levels like mad, but also from around the world," says Jim Solheim, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church Center in Manhattan. "We're getting some good testimonies from parish responses."

"We're just overwhelmed here," says a rabbi at B'nai Jeshurun, one of New York City's largest synagogues. The temple's voice mail announces special evening services and says: "At this time of sorrow we want to be together to pray for the healing of the wounded, the comfort of the bereaved families, and the well-being of our country."

Last night in Washington, D.C., Congress held an emotional prayer vigil, which was followed by a candlelight vigil for lawmakers, their families and staffers. And President Bush declared tomorrow a national day of "prayer and remembrance." The president encouraged Americans to take a moment "to pray for our nation, to pray for the families of those who were victimized by this act of terrorism."

Officials have yet to release an estimated death toll from the suicide attacks, but the figure, including the 266 killed in the four hijacked airplanes, those who died at the Pentagon, and those trapped in the World Trade Center, is expected to reach into the thousands.

At Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., the state's largest Jewish congregation, an employee says the sanctuary has "been rather lucky" so far in terms of an influx of members. The synagogue is planning a "service of comfort and consolation" for tonight, she says.

On an uglier note, a subdued Ismail El-Shikh, the Imam, or head priest, at the Islamic Cultural Center in Newark, says threats of violence against Arabs have kept the normally active mosque quiet in the last few days.

"We have few people [coming to pray]. They are very scared," says El-Shikh. Every Friday,which is Islam's holy day of prayer, the center, Newark's oldest mosque, gets about 1,500 Muslims at its midday session, El-Shikh says. As for tomorrow's expected attendance, he says, "Who knows how many?"

El-Shikh added a somber offer of regret for Tuesdays attacks. "We are against all of these killings of innocent people," he says. "This is prohibited in all of the religions."

In addition to spiritual solace, praying may have tangible health benefits, experts say. Ana Abraido-Lanza, a professor of public health at Columbia University who studies the impact of religiosity on arthritis in the Latino population, says some research suggests that praying can improve both emotional and physical outcomes for patients with certain conditions.

"It could be that prayer has a meditative effect that helps people relax and calm down. And then there's evidence from the physiological aspect that calming leads to lower blood pressure," which is important for good cardiovascular health, Abraido-Lanza says.

Attending group prayer sessions offer social support, which has been shown to be a key component in physical and mental health outcomes. "To know that there are others, you're not just in it by yourself," is an important part of healing, she says.

Abraido-Lanza also says some evidence indicates that the act of praying -- whether alone or in groups -- clears the mind and allows people to "problem-solve." That can be particularly important in a time of crisis, she notes.

However, Abraido-Lanza is quick to add that not every study on the effects of prayer, church attendance and faith is conclusive.

What To Do

The Web site has links to the prayers of Americans for those missing or killed in the attacks.

To learn the latest news about the attacks and the investigation into who led them, try Yahoo.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ana Abraido-Lanza, Ph.D., assistant professor of Public Health, Columbia University, New York; Jim Solheim, spokesman, Episcopal Church Center, New York; Ismail El-Shikh, Imam, Islamic Cultural Center, Newark, N.J.; B'nai Jeschurun, Manhattan
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