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Build It

Somebody asked me why I hadn’t written a column about the proposed mosque and interfaith center to be built in lower Manhattan. The question struck me because, though I’ve had vigorous discussions with family and friends, I inevitably end up feeling deeply discouraged about the issue.

That a proposed house of worship and an interfaith community center has unleashed such vitriol among conservatives is astonishing. That it has become a campaign issue is an insult, I believe, to the very families who lost loved ones on 9/11. That there was an effort to stop the construction of a mosque in Temecula, Calif., is mind-boggling.

And amidst all this controversy it isn’t clear to me whether the opposition to the building of the mosque near (but not on) the World Trade Center site is truly driven by family members grieving their terrible, terrible losses or a political agenda that seems increasingly xenophobic and willing to exploit the events of 9/11 for political gain. I suspect it is driven by the latter.

I haven’t yet heard any more profound words spoken on the subject than those of Mayor Michael Bloomberg early in August on Governor’s Island. There he reminded us that though we have a Constitution that guarantees the freedom to practice one’s chosen religion, this wasn’t always the case. He said:

“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.”

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street.”

He then went on to say:

“On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’

The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

Also, it is critical to remember that those who cite Christianity as a religion of peace have forgotten their history. The Crusades were ruthless, bloody, usually fruitless campaigns financed by the church and fought in the name of Christianity. Deus Vult!—God wills it—was the crusaders’ battle cry. But in reality these invasions were more about violence, theft and conquest than doctrine.

And though most of the Crusades targeted Muslim lands, in some instances they also pitted Christian against Christian: during the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople was brutally invaded and sacked, ensuring the schism between the church in the East and West. During the Cathar Crusade, called by Pope Innocent III, bloodthirsty invaders vanquished the southwestern France strongholds of the Cathars—whose dualistic faith rejected all forms of violence.

And it isn’t as if the history of Christianity has been pristine ever since the Middle Ages, a fact which I believe would horrify Jesus, as well as the authors of the Greek scriptures.

But from the earliest years of United States history, the founders sought to ensure that such actions would not be done in the name of any religion and that no one religion be held in higher regard than another. That’s part of what made and still makes the United States a different country, a far more desirable country from those countries in which personal liberties are scarce. Mayor Bloomberg’s wise and cogent words need to be heard:

“The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said “no” to a mosque in Lower Manhattan. Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure—and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God’s love and mercy.”

—Jo Page


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