September 3, 2010


The mosque in New York

What should a Catholic position be concerning the controversy over the Muslim center, complete with mosque, being built two blocks from where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood? The towers were destroyed by Muslim terrorists.

President Barack Obama spoke in favor of the center before backtracking and saying that he was going to stay out of the controversy.

We Catholics should begin with what Pope Benedict XVI is attempting to do when it comes to Catholic-Muslim relations. He has visualized a great Catholic-Muslim alliance against secularism, including joint efforts in the cultural, social and political spheres in defense of shared values, such as the sanctity of human life and the defense of the traditional family.

The pope sees the “clash of civilizations” not between Islam and the West but between belief and unbelief. However, he has said frequently, Muslims need to rein in their radicals and there must be greater religious freedom in the Islamic world.

Too many Americans fear Muslims these days and blame all of Islam for the terrorist acts of extremists like those in al-Qaida. That is like blaming Catholicism for the acts of Christian extremists who kill abortionists.

Opposing the building of mosques through protests and violence, as has been happening not only in New York but in other parts of the country, could have the opposite effect from what is desired: It could create a backlash that would increase radicalization.

On the other hand, studies have found that mosques, religious bookstores and other communal associations that bring Muslim-Americans together help prevent radicalization. That is exactly what the organization that wants to build the Muslim center in New York, the Cordoba Initiative, wants to promote.

The Cordoba Initiative is headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an American who says that he is trying to promote interfaith understanding. He was hoping that the project would heal some of the bitterness felt by relatives of those killed by the terrorists. This hope, however, appears to be in vain and his project is instead adding to the bitterness.

This controversy is somewhat similar to the convent that Carmelite nuns built near Auschwitz in 1984, a move protested by Jewish groups. Pope John Paul II thought the nuns had good intentions, but in 1993 he demanded that they move anyway. Perhaps, therefore, this particular mosque should not be built on its current planned site.

At an impromptu news conference on Aug. 18, New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan noted that “as Catholics, we ourselves are somewhat touchy about this issue because in the past we have been discriminated against.” He said he would be happy to participate in efforts to negotiate a compromise over the Manhattan mosque as part of “a very civil, rational, loving, respectful discussion.”

We can’t go along, though, with the superheated rhetoric of Newt Gingrich. Among other things, he said that no mosque near ground zero should be built as long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. Why should the United States deny the religious rights of Americans because a Muslim country does so?

He seems to be blaming Islam for the actions of the terrorists. However, both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama emphasized repeatedly that the so-called “war against terror” was not a war against Muslims; it is against terrorists. Yes, of course, 9/11 was caused by terrorists who were also Muslims, but we must not be seen as against all Muslims.

Our war in Afghanistan is against al-Qaida Muslim extremists, but it is also in defense of the vast majority of the Muslims who live there. We have struggled to try to give Iraq, a largely Muslim country, a democratic government. The United States has friendly relations with numerous Muslim countries, and that is as it should be.

Gingrich is right, though, when he protests against the lack of religious freedom in some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. Pope Benedict continues to speak out about this issue.

The world must take a stand against Muslim extremists who are terrorizing Christians. As recently as 1975, there were an estimated 25 million Christians in Arab countries. Today, that number is 12 million. Terrorism by Muslim extremists has chased many Christians out of their homelands.

Those issues, though, should be kept separate from the controversy over the mosque in New York. Why? Because we should always take the moral high road and respect the religious freedom of other people, even if they choose to ignore this basic human right.

—John F. Fink

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