Religious leaders start campaign to defend mosque near Ground Zero

Chris Moody Contributor
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A group of religious leaders representing different faiths have signed an open letter in support of the controversial Park51 Islamic community center and mosque scheduled to be built in Lower Manhattan, calling political opposition to the center a “transgression of the worst order.”

Framing the effort to halt construction of the Islamic community center and mosque as a “war on prayer,” the nearly two-dozen members of clergy who signed on include the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a progressive religious activist group, and the Rev. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, who is spearheading the effort.

The leaders drafted the letter in response to statements made by national public officials who have voiced strong opinions on whether the Muslim group should build the community center so close to Ground Zero.

“We believe it is time to shine light on the hypocrisy of politicians and pundits who expound on the freedom of religion for their chosen sects while seeking to tell our Muslim brothers and sisters where they can and cannot worship,” the letter reads. “Using a political podium to bully a religious community threatens one of our most fundamental freedoms.”

Politically, the effort to build the center has received bipartisan opposition. Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, have publicly declared that they think the site should be moved. Many prominent Republicans have also said the group should move to a different location.

President Obama has said that he supports the group’s right to build on the site.

In a statement, Henderson accused national leaders of politicizing the First Amendment.

“I am ashamed of those who wage a war against prayer in service of a political punch,” Henderson said.  “Instead, we should be defending the right of Muslims and all religious people to pray and worship in freedom and dignity.”

Support for the Park51 center does not span the entire spectrum of religious leaders in the United States. The group that signed the “War on Prayer” letter consists mostly of socially liberal members of clergy, while more traditionally conservative groups have voiced strong opposition. A spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said Muslims do not have the right to build a worship center in the space and the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy firm run out of Rev. Pat Robertson’s Regent University, filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the construction.
The Rev. Robert Chase, a signer of the letter and executive director of Intersections, a New York-based group that promotes interfaith dialogue, told The Daily Caller that he found Christian opposition to the project puzzling.

“If we stand for religious freedom, then we stand for it without qualification,” Chase said. “In the case here, I don’t really understand what the objection is on the part of some in the evangelical community who are really fundamentally in favor of religious freedom and recognize the importance of the separation of church and state.”

As for who is funding the Stop the War on Prayer initiative, Henderson said that “all services for this project have come from volunteers except Fitzgibbon Media who was paid a very small sum by a donor who would prefer to remain a private.”

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