Seasonal Reflection: Religious Freedom

Brian Jordan, OFM Features

After standing alongside New York City’s mayor last month, when Michael Bloomberg defended the right of Muslims to build a cultural center near the World Trade Center site, a friar and Brooklyn native submitted an essay to the HNP Communications Office describing the significance and emotion of the day. Brian Jordan, OFM, past chaplain at Ground Zero, called the Aug. 3 event a “shining moment in the history of our nation” in this essay that he titled Why I Support the Muslim Cultural Center Near the World Trade Center: Why I Stood by Mayor Bloomberg and What Occurred on Governor’s Island.” He describes the mayor’s speech in defense of religious liberty as unprecedented by an elected official in New York City history.

On early afternoon of Mon. Aug. 2, I received a phone call from Francis Barry, senior speechwriter for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He asked me to attend a press conference the next day on Governor’s Island facing the Statue of Liberty. Those attending would be the mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and a host of religious leaders from varying faith traditions throughout the city.

The purpose of the press conference was to support the proposed cultural center, which would contain a mosque near the World Trade Center. I immediately agreed to participate but I had no idea who would be there or what I would be asked to say. In fact, it was the first time I was ever asked to say nothing to anyone about a press conference until it actually occurred and I agreed to this confidentiality. What was to occur will be known as a shining moment in the history of our nation.

The press conference was scheduled after the New York City Landmark Preservation Committee was to vote either to give or not to give landmark status to 45-43 Park Place. Some asserted that this particular building may have been partially damaged by the collapse of the Twin Towers. This may give the building peripheral landmark status. But that morning, the commission, in a 9-0 decision, voted down landmark status. It is no coincidence that all of the members of the Landmark Preservation Committee were appointed by Mayor Bloomberg.

The 10 selected religious leaders all gathered at City Hall by 11 a.m. sharp in anticipation of the noon press conference on Governor’s Island. Some of the leaders I had met at past interfaith events. For others, it was the first time we met. When we entered the huge van to bring us to the ferry to Governor’s Island, we began exchanging niceties. But then we started talking to each other on a visceral level.

Forging Relationships
One rabbi, who was seated next to the Imam from the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan, asked me why I was the only Roman Catholic participant since there were four members of the Jewish faith present. I replied I was not sure why the mayor’s office had selected me. Perhaps, I inferred, it was due to my being a chaplain for 10 straight months at Ground Zero and because I am a Franciscan priest. I said that the Franciscans have been serving in the Holy Land since 1342. While administering the sacred shrines, the Franciscans have also forged important relationships with both Jewish and Muslim clergy as a means of interfaith dialogue and mutual respect.

I also reminded them that the birthplace of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, had been the meeting place of world religious leaders on three separate occasions. At the invitation of Pope John Paul II, world religious leaders met in 1986, in light of the nuclear threat in the world; in 1993, in response to ethnic violence in Kosovo and other parts of Eastern Europe; and again in 2002, in direct response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2002, the leaders of the world’s religions agreed in the Decalogue of the Peace of Assisi that religion should never be a means of violence.

Although the mayor appointed all nine members of the Landmark Preservation Committee and his office selected all 10 religious leaders to the Aug. 3 press conference — let me point out one fact. We were not bought off by the mayor’s money! One of the members of the Commission pointed out correctly that the building in question did not deserve landmark status because of falling debris from another building. As he asserted with professional confidence and acerbic wit, “You cannot landmark the sky!” Such a profound statement!

While we were in the van, Fr. Alexander Karloustos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese posed a thoughtful question, “Do we not agree that we will support this cultural center in its present location on the condition that funding for this center does not come from countries that refuse to build churches and synagogues?” We all immediately agreed to this principle and I asked Father Alexander that if this question came up during the press conference he reiterate this point and that he would speak on behalf of all 10 participating religious leaders. He agreed to this but unfortunately he was not given the opportunity to present this important admonition.

Repeatedly, the mayor stated that the source of the funding for a religious shrine was not the business of government. However, as interfaith religious leaders, we were adamant that funding never come from countries that were hostile to faith traditions other than Islam. Imam Shamsi of the Islamic Cultural Center clearly maintained that Saudi Arabia would never donate money to Imam Feisal Rauf because the Imam is Sufi Muslim while the overwhelming majority of Saudis practices Wahhabi Islam. They do not appear to get on with each other.

The Imam went on to point out that there are major differences among the billion plus Muslims throughout the world. We asked that Imam Feisal Rauf and other moderate Muslims make those Muslim religious categories public since most Americans, including most New Yorkers, are unfamiliar with them. Education is the best way to deal with discrimination.

Defending Rights on Governor’s Island
When we arrived at Governor’s Island, the 10 religious leaders and the mayor’s delegation together with Speaker Christine Quinn were escorted by special vans to the site facing the Statue of Liberty. Along the way, I was seated next to the mayor and Speaker Quinn. We joked about various topics from sports to religious affiliations. However, I noticed the mayor glancing down at the speech he was about to deliver. His demeanor evoked a nervous energy I had not seen before.

I have known the mayor for eight years through various gatherings and media events in the city of New York. I sensed that he was about to separate himself from his usual bland, businesslike personality for another level of expression. Indeed, his speech in defense of religious liberty was unprecedented in New York City history by an elected official. A Jewish American defending the rights of Muslim Americans! It was great. It was beautiful. It was America at its best!

While standing directly behind the mayor, I was mesmerized by his words and emotional delivery. I said to myself “How can a longtime policy and numbers nerd speak with such confidence and inspiration? Is this the same man who struggled in his transition from the private sector to be a public official?” He spoke of the discrimination and turmoil of Jews, Quakers and Catholics. He challenged New York as well as America not to repeat history by opposing moderate Muslims who want to build a cultural center that promises interfaith dialogue and respect.

I also noticed that the entire cadre of reporters and photographers facing the mayor were glued to every word he spoke. They saw the emotion on his face as they heard the emotion and eloquence in his voice. It was Mayor Michael Rubens Bloomberg’s finest moment as the 108th mayor of the City of New York. I was proud to be there not only as a native New Yorker but also as the lone representative of the Roman Catholic Church. It was indeed history in the making and I predict that this speech will be included in American history as one of the finest defenses of religious freedom in 21st century America.

After Speaker Christine Quinn spoke, I was asked to be the first speaker of the 10 religious leaders. I spoke candidly and passionately as a chaplain at Ground Zero who lost many friends including my mentor, Mychal Judge, OFM. As a Franciscan, I also defended the rights of a cultural center that includes a mosque. Two rabbis, the Imam and an African-American Protestant minister also spoke on behalf of the right to build a Muslim cultural center near the World Trade Center. All of us also acknowledged the feelings and the concerns of those family members who lost loved ones on 9/11 and those who served at 9/11 whether as uniformed personnel, construction workers or volunteers. Their viewpoints are both cherished and respected. I also pointed out in my testimonial that “Islam did not bring down those towers, it was fanaticism.” Please blame the fanatics, not Islam itself.

reflect-r3After the Q and A, we returned to our vans to go back by ferry to Lower Manhattan. On the ferry, I spoke to Imam Shamsi of the Islamic Cultural Center on the Upper East Side. I told him I appreciated his words and I asked him if there were such things as mission statements for each mosque and/or cultural center. He replied that there are no general templates for all mosques but each one has an official agreement as to a shared direction toward common goals.

I suggested that perhaps the cause for the cultural center near the World Trade Center might be better served if an official agreement were signed beforehand, that all prospective imams of this proposed cultural center continue to practice interfaith dialogue, respect and harmony in the future. This would give greater assurance to all New Yorkers that they practice what they preach. Imam Shamsi emphatically agreed to that religious polity suggestion.

Concluding Thoughts on Historical Context
A few days later, on Aug. 6, the world as well as America became fully aware of the impact of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s finest moment as the mayor of New York City. My father and I attended the ceremony highlighting the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that ushered in the nuclear age.

My father served in the South Pacific on the USS Curtiss near Saipan that fateful day. He saw the aircraft, the Enola Gay, fly its incendiary mission to Hiroshima as the captain of the USS Curtiss announced on the PA system to the sailors, “Men, you are about to see history.” Indeed, my father witnessed the beginning of the nuclear age. I believe I also witnessed history on Aug. 3, 2010 on Governor’s Island at an interfaith press conference when Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated a new beginning of religious tolerance in our great nation. Amen! So be it!

Interestingly, on Sept. 25, 1789, by a 2/3 vote of both Houses of Congress in session in New York City at Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street, present day intersection of Wall and Broad Streets, less than a mile from the proposed Cultural Center with Mosque at Park 51, the Congress proposed Articles to the Legislature of the States as Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Among them was the freedom of religion!

— Fr. Brian, a resident of Holy Name of Jesus Friary on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is chaplain of the Building and Construction Trades Council in New York City. The photo above appeared in both The New York Times and New York Post (Aug. 4) and Newsweek magazine (Aug. 16, 2010).