WASHINGTON – Christian and Jewish leaders are standing with the Islamic community to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry.
At an "emergency interfaith summit" on Tuesday, a broad group of prominent religious leaders expressed deep distress and sadness against recent incidents of violence and the desecration of Islamic houses of worship.
"In recent weeks, we have become alarmed by the anti-Muslim frenzy that has been generated over the plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque at the Park 51 site near Ground Zero in New York City," the group told the media. "Our concern here is not to debate the Park 51 project anew, but rather to respond to the atmosphere of fear and contempt for fellow Americans of the Muslim faith that the controversy has generated."
The group included representatives from mainline Protestant denominations, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the Greek Orthodox Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and The Union for Reform Judaism, among others. They joined the Islamic Society of North America to voice their concerns.
"We are convinced that spiritual leaders representing the various faiths in the United States have a moral responsibility to stand together and to denounce categorically derision, misinformation or outright bigotry directed against any religious group in this country," they said in a statement. "Silence is not an option."
The diverse group expressed their commitment to building a future in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division and insisted that "no religion should be judged on the words of actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence."
Protests and emotionally-charged debates have prevailed since a New York City community board voted in May to support the development of an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from the site where nearly 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The planned community center at 45-51 Park Place has been promoted as part of an effort to improve Muslim-West relations and to promote tolerance and pluralism. But opponents say building a Muslim house of worship so close to ground zero is insensitive.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is spearheading the project, broke his silence in an opinion piece in The New York Times on Tuesday. Responding to the furor over the project, he said he has been struck by how the controversy has "riveted" the attention of Americans.
He also stated that he will be proceeding with the $100 million community center on Park Place and believes it is the right thing to do.
The project, he said, will "amplify the multifaith approach" that his Cordoba Initiative has deployed. He added that the objective of the project "has always been to make this a center for unification and healing."
"Cordoba House will be built on the two fundamental commandments common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: to love the Lord our creator with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength; and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves," he wrote. "We want to foster a culture of worship authentic to each religious tradition, and also a culture of forging personal bonds across religious traditions."
Rauf further challenged Americans in the days leading up to the ninth anniversary of 9/11 to tone down the "vitriol and rhetoric that serves only to strengthen the radicals and weaken our friends' belief in our values."
This weekend while Americans commemorate the 9/11 anniversary, Muslims will also be observing the holiday of Eid-al-Fitr.
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, and a group of Christian and Jewish leaders – from the Interfaith Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee and the Religious Action Center – met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday to address religious freedom protections and the fear for safety.
Khera said they pressed Holder to use the recently enacted hate crimes law to prosecute those who commit religiously-motivated hate crimes.
"Today's meeting with the Attorney General sends the strong message to faith communities across America that no one should have to pray in fear and that the federal government will not tolerate hate-motivated violence and intimidation," she said. "An attack on one faith community is an attack on us all."
The outcry against anti-Muslim bigotry comes as a small church in Gainesville, Fla., announced that it would be pressing ahead with its "Burn a Koran Day" on Saturday.
Though evangelical and other religious leaders and U.S. government officials urged the church – Dove World Outreach Center – to cancel the event as it could be used by extremists in the Middle East to incite violence, the Rev. Terry Jones said they are still determined to go through with it.
Holder has called the Quran burning "idiotic and dangerous," according to Khera who spoke with reporters after her meeting with the attorney general.
The burning of the Islamic holy book may not be a violation of law but it violates a sense of decency, she noted.
Interfaith Alliance President the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, who joined Khera at the meeting, commented that what's going on in Gainesville is in no way patriotic or religious.
"Hate is not a democratic value and it is not a religious value," he said.