Those mosque controversies

These are tough times for proposed mosque developments in NYC.

The pastor of a Catholic parish on Staten Island has withdrawn his support for the sale of an old convent to a Muslim group.

Since a contract was signed last month to sell the property to the Muslim American Society, the move has faced fierce opposition at meetings and rallies.

Of course, plans for a big mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero have also drawn cries of indignation, including from people who lost loved ones on 9/11.

The downtown project is being run by the Cordoba Initiative led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Since 9/11, many people have called on moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism and forge new relationships with the West.

Rauf appears to be that guy.

The Cordoba Initiative is all about improving relations between Islam and the West. Rauf pursues this goal internationally and at home.

I got a chance to talk to him in 2005 in Yonkers, when he came to an interfaith lunch convened by the American Muslim Women’s Association. He told me about behind-the-scenes work he was doing to get Muslim and Jewish leaders to dialogue in several countries.

He also told me about his work to gather young American Muslims, potential future leaders, to talk about crafting a new American Muslim identity. In fact, he oversaw a Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow retreat at the Garrison Institute.

When I spoke with Rauf, it was apparent that he knew a tremendous amount about Judaism and Christianity and that he knows numerous American leaders from both worlds.

He told me then: “Because we believe that God created humankind in the divine image, to love your fellow human beings is to love God.”

In 2003, when the popular God Squad — Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman — spoke at Purchase College and several other local spots, Rauf joined the squad to add a Muslim perspective on things. In the picture, that’s him on the right.

At Purchase, Rauf talked about trying to persuade a major American newspaper to print a religious edict declaring that American Muslims were religiously justified in participating in a war against Afghanistan.

The first mention of Rauf in the Journal News’ digital library is from 1998, was when he came to Valley Cottage to help celebrate the end of Hanukkah and the beginning of Ramadan with a gathering of Muslims and Jews.

I also interviewed Rauf for my book about natural disasters. I remember him as being gracious, insightful and funny. He told me then:


We should care for each other and care for the planet, utilize our smarts and our resources to take care of the planet so it takes care of us. We should be reminded of our primal relationship to the creator and of the two basic commandments of the Abrahamic religions: to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your fellow human beings.


The guy doesn’t sound like a bad potential neighbor, does he?

Of course, any time I’ve written about Muslims, people write or call and ask me how I can know their ultimate motives. I can’t, obviously.

But Imam Rauf reminds me a great deal of the more impressive priests, ministers and rabbis I’ve met over the years.

If the Muslim community in New York is going to continue to grow — and it is — Rauf sure seems like the guy you want in charge.

There’s something about Thanksgiving

Tis the season for interfaith get-togethers.

Around Thanksgiving, numerous local groups pull together people from different faiths for a few prayers and snacks. You usually get mostly mainline Protestants and Jews, with a smattering of Catholics and Orthodox Christians and a Muslim or two.

At least that’s the mix in the NY burbs.

The Westchester chapter of the American Jewish Committee will hold its regular Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast on Thursday at Manhattanville College. This is a unique event, as participants will take turns reading aloud from a special “reader” written by the AJC, which tells the story of how immigrants from many cultures come to the U.S. to share our special freedoms.

I’ve been to several of the breakfasts and it can be a moving experience.

This year, the breakfast will honor Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson of Temple Beth-El of Northern Westchester and Reverend Paul S. Briggs of the Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, both of whom are very active in interfaith work in their community.

The Peekskill Area Pastors Association will host an inter-religious service next Sunday (Nov. 22) at 5 p.m. at the St. Columbanus Church, 122 Oregon Road, in Cortlandt Manor.

And there will be many others (which I’m sure I will hear about after I post this).

Local pastor heading for Sultinate of Oman to head interfaith center

Last year, I talked to the Rev. Doug Leonard, pastor of the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown, about a trip he was about to take to the Beijing Olympics.

He was going with Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York City, a leading voice on religious freedom issues, to see how China was addressing the myriad religious needs of the Olympic athletes.

Leonard told me that the trip was a great opportunity for him because — beside the obvious reasons — he had a tremendous and growing interesting in interfaith relations.

tjndc5-5b4o3jlkb0j12nm1enb6_layoutHe was quite proud of the fact that  his denomination, the Reformed Church in America, is a descendant of the Dutch Reformed Church, which has a long history of promoting interfaith tolerance.

A few months after the Olympics, Leonard was leaving for the Sultinate of Oman to take part in a conference with Muslims.

Now he’s going back — to stay (at least for a while).

Sunday will be Leonard’s last day at the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown. The next day he leaves for Oman to become director of the Al Amana Centre, an interfaith center in Muscat that was started by the Reformed Church in America

I understand that he will be back briefly late next month. He’ll be honored by the Peekskill Area Pastors Association, of which he is immediate a past president.

I hope to get a chance to talk with him about his unusual new job.

Tomorrow night: How to improve interfaith relations

A reminder: The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor will host a forum tomorrow evening (Thursday, May 7) on enhancing interreligious cooperation in the Lower Hudson Valley.

The 7:30 program is to mark the start of the pope’s trip Friday to the Holy Land.

I’ll be the moderator, so come on out.

The panelists will be: the Rev. Anthony Falsarella of the St. Basil Academy in Garrison; the Rev. James Gardiner of the Graymoor friars; Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the Westchester-based American Muslim Women’s Association; the Rev. Adolphus C. Lacey, pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Peekskill; and Rabbi Lee S. Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill.

Graymoor is located in Garrison on Route 9, not far north of the Westchester-Putnam border. Once you drive in, follow signs for the Spiritual Life Center.

A week of prayer for religious friendship?

We already have the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, started and promoted by the Graymoor Friars.

Now we may — may — get some sort of annual week when religious leaders would highlight the good in other religious traditions.

I just watched the concluding press conference from the Muslim/Christian conference at Yale, and one of the goals coming out of it is to start such a week.

“I think it could have significant implications and repercussions,” said Ibrahim Kalin, an assistant professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, who introduced the idea at the press conference.

It won’t happen overnight.

“If it is going to be formalized, will have to be taken to a higher level, an international body like the United Nations, perhaps,” Kalin said.

volf.jpgOtherwise, in wrapping things up, Kalin and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf agreed that the conference accomplished what it could. More than 150 religious leaders from around the world came to talk and get to know one another. Over the next year or so, they’ll do it again at Cambridge University, the Vatican, Georgetown U and in Jordan.

“In the exercise of talking about love of God and love of neighbor, we practiced love of God and love of neighbor,” Volf said (that’s him).

He added: “We have never come close to anything like blows.”

Armonk rabbi an interfaith player

STILL IN NEW HAVEN — I just had a nice talk with Rabbi Douglas Krantz, the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk. He’s an observer at the big Christian/Muslim summit here at Yale and will be on a panel that sums things up on Thursday.

I spoke to him in a lovely Yale courtyard during a coffee break. I asked him how he became a participant.

“I got invited,” he said.

images.jpegHe’s been involved in interfaith work before, so someone knew something. Krantz is less interested in how he got here than the work that’s being done.

“These are people who have differences — and they’re talking,” he said. “That is significant. And everyone is not necessarily agreeing on everything.”

Interfaith work is hard work, Krantz told me. It’s about building human relations. “Human relations are structures. Profound structures,” he said.

Krantz also mentioned one of the unspoken truths at most interfaith events: That you have to deal with the religions on paper and how people really behave.

“Christians, Muslims and Jews are not necessarily idealized manifestations of their religions,” he said.

What will say at Thursday’s wrap-up? He’s not yet sure. But he knows the key to pursuing and promoting interfaith relations.

“I think we just keep going.”

A final pre-arrival poll on the pope

Two weeks before the pope touches down in America, 32% of Americans say they do not know enough about him to offer an opinion.

And those are the folks who will admit it.

A new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that of those who do have an opinion, 52% of Americans and 74% of Roman Catholics view the pope — here’s that nebulous word that pollsters love — favorably.

The numbers are pretty much the same as they were last summer.

What will the numbers be after the papal visit?

How has Benedict done at interfaith relations? Hmmm. 39% say he has done an excellent or good job. 40% say he has done a fair or poor job.

297-1.gifAmong Catholics, 64% say he has done an excellent or good job at promoting interfaith relations.

This is kind of interesting: Last summer, 56% of Americans saw the pope as conservative and 22% as moderate or liberal. Now, only 45% see him as conservative and 28% as moderate or liberal.

A lot of orthodox Catholics don’t like the pope (or any Catholic figures) being painted as conservative or liberal, saying such political tags don’t apply to the faith. But blame the pollsters, not me…

NOTE: The graphic is from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.