Jewish Leaders Join Support for Ground Zero Mosque

Jewish Leaders Join Support for Ground Zero Mosque

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Religious leaders from a variety of faiths gathered Friday at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles to express support for the building of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. The project, often referred to as the Mosque at Ground Zero, has been at the center of a political and media frenzy since late July. The leaders’ statement, released at the event, was drafted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and signed by 71 religious leaders and clergy, including eight Jewish leaders, from across Greater Los Angeles, and it offered a strong rebuttal to those who oppose the center.

“We support the building of the Islamic Center … in lower Manhattan, and other mosques and community centers across the nation,” the one-page statement says. Standing outside the Los Angeles Islamic Center, Reverend Anne Felton Hines, minister of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Canoga Park, read the statement, which acknowledges the impact of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 on people of all faiths, yet affirms “the right of Muslim Americans to build a house of worship like any other American, at any location according to local ordinances and U.S. law.”

In attendance were more than 30 religious leaders, including about half a dozen local Jewish leaders. Other also present were Roman Catholics, Quakers, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Muslims.

“The President said he would not comment on the wisdom of building a mosque and a community center in Lower Manhattan,” said Stephen Rohde, co-president of Progressive Jewish Alliance and chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. Rohde was referring to a statement made by President Obama last Saturday in which he qualified earlier remarks that seemed to signal his support for the project. “We today are commenting on that wisdom. It is wise, it is right, it is good for that mosque and community center to be built in that place,” Rohde said in the morning’s most impassioned speech.

The project, named Park51 for its street address and which is intended to be the home of the interfaith center Cordoba House, has been public since late 2009. It became the subject of controversy when several prominent conservative pundits—notably former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—picked up on a right-wing blog opposing the center’s construction. Though the center’s website says the building will include a mosque, the majority of the space in the building would not be dedicated to religious activities. With a swimming pool, a gym, a basketball court, a restaurant, a culinary school and other amenities that will be made available to all, it has been likened by many to a YMCA or Jewish community center.

Rabbi Jonathon Klein of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) pointed to the project’s multiple uses. “This mosque issue is not even a mosque issue. It’s about a community center,” Klein said. “The Jewish community has a history of wonderful Jewish community centers all over this country, without barriers to their existence. Why is it that the Muslim community should be scapegoated at this time?”

Opponents of Park51, who speak of the need for sensitivity to the families of victims of 9/11, have asked why the Islamic center needs to be in that particular location. Indeed, that was the only question asked by a member of the press at this morning’s conference.

A number of speakers offered extemporaneous responses. Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that the people behind Park51 had a constitutional right to build. “It is two lies [that have] happened,” he said, noting that the so-called Ground Zero Mosque was neither actually on the World Trade Center site, nor would it be solely a mosque. “It is a community center,” Hathout said.

Lewis Logan, pastor of Ruach Christian Community Fellowship, strongly objected to the question. “If it were a Catholic church being proposed,” he said, “there would be no question about the wisdom of building in that particular location. If it were a Baptist church, if it were any other faith, there would be no question about it. I abhor the question itself.”

“I don’t want, for one moment, in the shadow of this, not to make a comment about Temecula, “ said Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, referring to another instance of public opposition to building plans for a mosque. A city of 105,000 in Riverside County, Temecula is about 90 miles from Los Angeles, and over 2,700 miles from Ground Zero. “You may talk about New York, but in our own vast city of Los Angeles, there are religious leaders standing up and saying the same thing about a mosque being built in the midst of their city. How tragic. It is not about New York. It’s about the soul of America.”