Conservatives Encouraged to be Good Neighbors to NYC Mosque Builders

Not many prominent conservative evangelicals have weighed in on the controversial effort to establish a mosque and Islamic cultural center near New York City's Ground Zero, and even fewer have voiced support for the project.

Centrist and progressive evangelicals, on the other hand, have been mostly supportive and have tried to encourage their more conservative counterparts to be good neighbors, arguing that those behind the newly renamed Park51 project have been.

In a teleconference this week with faith and military leaders Lisa Sharon Harper, executive director of New York Faith & Justice, praised the people behind the project for "doing everything" they can to be good neighbors – including their plan to open the community center up to everyone, not just Muslims, and changing their name from the controversial Cordoba House to Park51.

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She said it is now the turn of Christians to be good neighbors to the Muslims.

Two core pillars of the Christian faith, stressed Harper, are Jesus' call to value truth and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

"These two values now lead me to believe the Park51 mosque and community center must be built," stated Harper, who is also author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat.

Harper, a progressive evangelical, was joined Wednesday by David Gushee, co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

Gushee reminded Baptists of their history of being persecuted in England, and that being the reason for their strong support of religious freedom for minorities.

"Certain evangelicals are among those leading the charge, not just against Park51 but a broader attack against Islam as a religion," remarked Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia.

"Jesus taught that they will know we are his followers by our love. Every time a self-identified evangelical goes on the attack against Islam and Muslims as a group, he or she hurts the cause of the Gospel. I call on my fellow evangelicals to cease and desist," he said.

Over the past several months, what started out as a local issue has blown up into a national and even international controversy. The Muslim-led Cordoba Initiative wants to build a $100 million mosque and Islamic cultural center at 45-51 Park Place, two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Opponents of the project, including many families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks, accuse the developers of Park51 of being insensitive. Some critics of the project even have gone as far as allege that Park51 will be used to train Muslim terrorists.

However, interfaith leaders, including New York Jewish rabbis, have said Park51 visionary Feisal Abdul Rauf has a history of building bridges between the West and the Muslim world.

Still, according to a recent Pew Research Center Poll, a slim majority of Americans (51 percent) say they agree more with "those who object to building Islamic center and mosque near World Trade Center" than with the supporters of the project (34 percent).

Yet at the same time, 62 percent of Americans say Muslims should have the same rights as other religious groups to build houses of worship in their local communities.

Matthew Alexander, a former military interrogator in Iraq and author of How to Break a Terrorist, supports allowing the Park51 project to move forward as intended.

Alexander, who spoke Wednesday during the teleconference, said Park51 would stand as a "powerful symbol of U.S. tolerance and freedom" and directly contradicts the claim of terrorist group al Qaeda that Americans hate Muslims.

"As a symbol, its construction demonstrates that the U.S. is not at war with Islam and that Muslims are welcome in America," he said.

The former military interrogator, who won a Bronze Star for leading an interrogation team that located Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, said the number one recruiting tool of al Qaeda is showing that the U.S. is a hypocrite by highlighting its policy of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

By allowing Park51 to be built, Alexander contended, the United States can prevent terrorist groups from using the issue as a recruiting tool.

But the debate over the project has been an emotionally-charged with no sign of letting up.

The struggle recently expanded to bus and online ads. Bus ads have appeared displaying the question "Why There?" with a picture of the burning World Trade Center near a drawing of a high-rise building with an Islamic crescent.

Meanwhile, an ad on the web features Muslims saying they are feared and hated but not wanting to impose their faith or take over the United States.

"I am here and have been here for generations wanting the same thing you do – life, liberty, peace and happiness," the Muslims say in the ad.

"I am an American. I am a Muslim. This is my faith. This is my voice," they add.

The Muslim ad campaign was launched this week in response to the widespread negative views.

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