Blogging Religiously

From a New York point of view


Scientology’s ‘volunteer ministers’ at work in Japan04.11.11

I got a press release today from the Church of Scientology, promoting the work of Scientology’s “volunteer ministers” in Japan since the disaster.

The release includes this: “Since the disaster struck, the Scientology Volunteer Ministers Japan Disaster Response Team has helped more than 48,000 displaced persons in dozens of shelters distributing food, water and supplies and providing Scientology assists. Assists, often described as “spiritual first aid,” help the individual overcome the effects of loss, shock and trauma and speed recovery by addressing the spiritual and emotional factors in illness and injury.”

The work of Scientology’s “volunteer ministers” at disaster sites has long been controversial. Back in early ‘02, I wrote about their work at Ground Zero.

At the time, the chief of the National Mental Health Association told me: “”What Scientology is doing can be very dangerous if people think they are going to see legitimate mental health counselors. Their volunteer ministers are not trained in mental health services and actually reject science. We really believe that harm can be done here.”

No one questions (I think) the general support offered by Scientology volunteers: passing out food; helping people find shelter; listening to people in crisis; etc.

The issue is the “spiritual first aid” provide by their “ministers,” who only read some Scientology materials and take an exam.

This is what I wrote in ‘02:

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Scientology uses technical terms to describe counseling techniques that, on the face of it, sound impossibly simple. At Ground Zero, for instance, volunteer ministers often offered “touch assists,” which involve touching injured body parts as a way to open communication between the brain and the injured area.

For someone still focused on Sept. 11, volunteer ministers may perform a “locational.” This involves having someone focus on something in the present.”

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A volunteer told me at the time: “If someone keeps seeing the image of the World Trade Center falling again and again, you ask the person to look into the environment – at a clock or whatever. Instead of looking into the past, they look into the now. That’s not to say they won’t think about the past again, but they’re not as stuck on it.”

The press release about Japan includes this: “A man whose business was swept away in the tsunami began his assist in sorrow and walked away humming, telling the Volunteer Minister he plans to rebuild his inn as soon as he can.”

Scientology, by the way, is opposed to the practice of psychiatry and psychology.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Scientologywith 8 Comments →

Mosque controversy the religion story of 201012.17.10

The national association of religion journalists, a group I belonged to for many years, has just named the top 10 religion stories of the year.

Can you guess what was number one?

The members of the Religion Newswriters Association chose the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy. I think it’s a reasonable choice. The debate over the proposed Islamic center raised all sorts of questions about Islam’s place in the U.S., almost a decade after 9/11. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done.

But I don’t get Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious figure behind the Islamic center, being voted religion newsmaker of the year. He hardly said a word until the controversy was white hot. He has done a few TV interviews since, but has still stayed largely out of the limelight.

If you’re talking about newsmakers—people who make the news—I would have chosen the vocal opponents of the Islamic center before the reserved imam.

The other top stories?

Number two was faith-based relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti.

Number three was the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse problems exploding in Ireland and Germany and the pope’s possible role in past decisions made and not made.

Four? Religious voices in the Tea Party movement.

Five: The religious divide over health care reform.

The rest of the top 10: Mainline Protestants continuing to duke it out over sexuality; the recession’s effects on religious life; bullying; Americans’ poor performance on a survey of religious knowledge; and the newly Protestant-free U.S. Supreme Court.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Uncategorizedwith No Comments →

Muslim notes for early September09.08.10

Some interesting Islam-related notes:

1. The Islamic Center of Peekskill will hold a public celebration tomorrow or Friday of Eid ul-Fitr, one of the two great Muslim festivals.

It will be at Pugsley Park (at Main Street and Bank Street) from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. We don’t have a date yet because the Eid won’t be set until a sighting of the new moon.

A press release promises “an opportunity to meet your Muslim neighbors and learn how we would like to continue to serve the community.”

2. Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains will hold an interfaith panel on Saturday, Sept 18. (Yom Kippur) from 3 to 4:30 p.m.: “Visions of a Tolerant America: Jewish, Muslim and Christian voices discuss an Islamic Center near Ground Zero.”

Panelists will include three parents who lost children on 9/11, Ann Schaffer of the American Jewish Committee and Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Kol Ami.

3. The pastor of a small evangelical church in Florida still plans to burn some Qurans on Sept. 11. What will the fall-out be?

He doesn’t care that Gen. David Petraeus has warned that “images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan – and around the world – to inflame public opinion and incite violence.”

Numerous groups are coming out against the church, including the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which says: “We join with the sane voices from the highest offices of the American government, and religious and civic leaders around the world, to stand up against this seeming Inquisition on American soil and call for Terry Jones to call off this attack on religious freedom in a land of liberty.”

4. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is finally back on American soil and is finally speaking out about what the deal is with the proposed Islamic center.

He writes in the NY Daily News:

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The project has been mischaracterized, so I want to explain clearly what it would be. Our planned 13-story community center is intended for Park Place between Church St. and West Broadway. It is not a mosque, although it will include a space for Muslim prayer services. It will have a swimming pool, basketball court, meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, banquet facilities and many other things a community needs to be healthy. The center will offer theatrical programming, art exhibitions and cooking classes. These are amenities missing now from this part of the city.

And, yes, the center will have a public memorial to the victims of 9/11 as well as a meditation room where all will be welcome for quiet reflection. The center will support soul and body.

The center will be open to all regardless of religion. Like a YMCA, the 92nd St. Y or the Jewish Community Center uptown, it will admit everyone. It will be a center for all New Yorkers.

What grieves me most is the false reporting that leads some families of 9/11 victims to think this project somehow is designed by Muslims to gloat over the attack.

That could not be further from the truth.


Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Eid, Ground Zero, Muslims, Qurans, Tolerancewith 1 Comment →

‘There can be no place for religious bias of any kind…’09.07.10

I just walked in after a long weekend and a morning assignment and one of the first things I see is a new statement about the proposed downtown Islamic center from a group of New York’s religious leaders.

It’s basically a call for civility.

I’m sure you’re getting tired of hearing about this (and so am I), but here is the statement:

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JOINT STATEMENT FROM NEW YORK RELIGIOUS LEADERS

New York has a long and proud history of dialogue and respect among the various faith groups that live together in this magnificent city. It is especially troubling, then, whenever religion is seen as a source of misunderstanding and disagreement. As religious people, Muslims, Jews and Christians know that at the heart of each of our faiths is the promotion of peace and understanding among all God’s children. Consequently, there can be no place for religious bias of any kind – including anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity, or anti-Islam—in any of our communities.

Public discussions about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero have recently become an unfortunate source of tension and animosity here in New York City. As leaders in our religious communities, we join together to voice our shared concern for the way in which New Yorkers have become polarized on this issue. All of us must ensure that our conversations on this matter remain civil, that our approaches to each other are marked with respect, and that our hearts stay free of bitterness.

As religious leaders, we stand ready to assist in facilitating a dialogue that will not only lead to a resolution of the current dispute, but also lay the foundation for a new and deeper understanding among us all.

Imam Shamsi Ali
Director, Jamaica Muslim Center, New York

Rev. Dr. A. R. Bernard
President, The Council of Churches of the City of New York

The Most Reverend Nicholas A. DiMarzio,
Bishop of Brooklyn
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn

The Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of New York
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York

Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier
President, New York Board of Rabbis

Imam Izak-EL M. Pasha
Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, New York

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik
Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Bias, Ground Zero, Mosque, religion, Tolerancewith No Comments →

NY’s mainline Protestant leaders support proposed downtown Islamic center09.02.10

It’s taken a while, but New York’s mainline Protestant leaders have issued statements about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

No great surprises here. The NY bishops of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church all gently support the project, while acknowledging the pain still felt by so many.

I’ll paste their full statements below.

United Methodist Bishop Jeremiah Park declares his support for the project, writing that “denying the fundamental right of a religious community, as long as it fulfills the same legal requirements applied to all other religious communities, by singling it out for the wrong reasons, compromises the integrity of who we are at our core.”

He also writes: “Our hearts break over the sacrifice of the dead from 9/11 and the pains and sufferings of their loved ones and our country. However, to truly honor them, to truly preserve the historic significance of the Ground Zero, and to truly triumph over the evil force of 9/11, it is necessary to stand firm on what America believes in and be willing to pay whatever the price to protect and preserve freedom and equality for all.”

ELCA Bishop Robert Rimbo doesn’t offer the same outright pledge of support, but concludes with this: “There is much pain very near the surface of our emotions with regard to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. But how will preventing this center from being constructed help us to deal with that pain? There is great fear driving our lives today. How do persons of faith respond to that fear? We commend ourselves to the reliable and merciful arms of the God of Abraham, the God whom Jesus calls Abba, the God whom Muslims and Christians in various parts of the world call Allah. This God promises a reign in which all shall be well. Our faith is bigger and stronger than all our fears.”

Italics mine. Sure sounds like he is in favor getting beyond the fear and building the place.

Finally, Episcopal Bishop Mark Sisk, as I noted last week, wrote a public letter supporting the Islamic center. It includes this: “The plan to build this center is, without doubt, an emotionally highly-charged issue. But as a nation with tolerance and religious freedom at its very foundation, we must not let our emotions lead us into the error of persecuting or condemning an entire religion for the sins of its most misguided adherents.”

Of course, Archbishop Tim Dolan has offered to be a conciliatory voice, but has stopped short of taking a position. In a recent blog post, he wrote: “Although I have no strong sentiment about what should be decided about the eventual where of the Islamic Center, I do have strong convictions about how such a discussion should be reached: civilly and charitably.  The hot-heads on either side must not dominate.”

Here are the full UMC, ELCA and Episcopal Church statements… (more…)

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Bishops, ELCA, Episcopal Church, Ground Zero, Mosque, Support, United Methodist Churchwith No Comments →

Most NYers oppose Islamic center — but defend the right to build it08.31.10

New Yorkers have very mixed impulses about the proposed Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero.

According to a new poll from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., New Yorkers agreed—by a 54% to 40% margin—with this statement: “that because of American freedom of religion, Muslims have the right to build the mosque near Ground Zero…”

At the same time, though, respondents agreed—by a 53% to 39% margin—with this statement: “that because of the sensitivities of 9/11 relatives, Muslims should not be allowed to build the mosque near Ground Zero.”

In the end, poll respondents prefer that the developers CHOOSE to move the site, which makes sense if you consider the above results.

By a large 71% to 21% percent majority, voters agree “that because of the opposition of Ground Zero relatives, the Muslim group should voluntarily build the mosque somewhere else. (italics mine)”

Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, explains: “The heated, sometimes angry, debate over the proposal to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero has New York State voters twisted in knots, with some of them taking contradictory positions depending on how the question is asked.”

He also says: “Overwhelmingly, across all party and regional lines, New Yorkers say the sponsors ought to voluntarily move the proposed mosque to another location.”

According to the poll, New Yorkers  (meaning across the state) agree that Islam is a peaceful religion, by a 54-21 margin (with 24% undecided).

The “peaceful” numbers vary across the state: 62-21 in NYC; 51-25 in the Burbs; and 49-28 upstate.

Finally, respondents overwhelmingly said—71  to 22 percent—that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo should investigate the financing of the proposed Islamic center.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Ground Zero, Mosque, New York state, pollwith 1 Comment →

Talking to 9/11 survivors about the Islamic center proposal08.27.10

Anger. Pain. Frustration. Confusion.

I’m feeling all of it while talking to 9/11 survivors from these parts about the Great Mosque Controversy.

Several people I’ve reached did not want to talk about it.

Many others, to be honest, did not return my calls. Most of them, I assume, also did not want to talk about it.

But those survivors who have talked to me have very strong feelings.

Mostly against the proposed Islamic center.

Some in favor.

Several people have had no interest in separating the 19 lunatics who carried out the attacks from any or all other Muslims.

I’m more convinced than I was a few days ago that this controversy will get nastier if plans are not changed.

My article should be on LoHud/Journal News on Sunday.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Islamic centerwith 1 Comment →

Your mosque round-up08.25.10

In case you’re not completely sick of hearing about THE mosque, here is an update of the latest:


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NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an impassioned speech at an event marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, saying that not allowing a proposed mosque to be built near ground zero would be “compromising our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.”


“We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting,” Bloomberg said at the dinner Tuesday in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan.


The mayor said he understood the “impulse to find another location for the mosque” but a compromise won’t end the debate.


“The question will then become how big should the no-mosque zone around the World Trade Center be,” Bloomberg said. “There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved?”


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Meanwhile, Archbishop Dolan is calling for better manners, without taking a position on the controversy.


“We’re just a little bit apprehensive that those noble values may be a bit at risk in the way this conversation and debate about the site of the mosque is taking place,” he said.


“I sure don’t have strong feelings on where the mosque should ultimately be,” he added.


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Bishop Mark Sisk, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, released a public letter in support of the mosque. It’s a sharp piece based on his personal perspective—but oddly late to the debate:


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I am writing to tell you that I wholeheartedly join other religious and civic leaders in calling on all parties involved in the dispute over the planned lower Manhattan Islamic community center and mosque to convert a situation that has sadly become ever more divisive into, as Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently stated, “an opportunity for a civil, rational, loving, respectful discussion.”


The plan to build this center is, without doubt, an emotionally highly-charged issue. But as a nation with tolerance and religious freedom at its very foundation, we must not let our emotions lead us into the error of persecuting or condemning an entire religion for the sins of its most misguided adherents.


The worldwide Islamic community is no more inclined to violence that any other. Within it, however, a struggle is going on – between the majority who seek to follow a moderate, loving religion and the few who would transform it into an intolerant theocracy intent on persecuting anyone, Muslim or otherwise, with whom they disagree. We should all, as Christians, reach out in friendship and love to the peaceful Islamic majority and do all in our power to build and strengthen bridges between our faiths. We should also all remember that the violence and hateful behavior of the extremist are not confined to any one religion.  Over the centuries we Christians have numbered more than a few among us who have perpetrated unspeakable atrocities in Christ’s name.


I must admit that I also have a more personal connection with this issue. At the Episcopal Diocese of New York we know the leaders of this project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan. We know that they are loving, gentle people, who epitomize Islamic moderation. We know that as Sufis, they are members of an Islamic sect that teaches a universal belief in man’s relationship to God that is not dissimilar from mystic elements in certain strains of Judaism and Christianity. Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan are, without question, people to whom Christians of good will should reach out with the hand of hospitality and friendship, as they reach out to us. I understand and support their desire to build an Islamic center, intended in part to promote understanding and tolerance among different religions.


For these reasons I applaud the positions taken by Governor Patterson, Mayor Bloomberg and others and look forward to furthering the efforts to resolve this issue. I am convinced, aided and guided by the One God who is creator of all, that people of goodwill can find a solution that will strengthen, rather than divide, the human condition…


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Finally, there’s the Greek Orthodox perspective:


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NEW YORK (AP) — Supporters of a Greek Orthodox church destroyed on Sept. 11 say officials willing to speak out about a planned community center and mosque near ground zero have been silent on efforts to get the church rebuilt.


But the World Trade Center site’s owner says a deal to help rebuild St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was offered and rejected, after years of negotiations, over money and other issues.


Though the projects are not related, supporters — including George Pataki, New York’s governor at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks — have questioned why public officials have not addressed St. Nicholas’ future while they lead a debate on whether and where the Islamic cultural center should be built.


“What about us? Why have they forgotten or abandoned their commitment to us?” asked Father Alex Karloutsos, assistant to the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. “When I see them raising issues about the mosque and not thinking about the church that was destroyed, it does bother us.”


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(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)


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UPDATE: Now we have a 21-year-old guy from Southeast accused of stabbing a Muslim cabbie in NYC.


The driver says this: “Right now the public sentiment is very serious” because of the Ground Zero mosque debate. All drivers should be more careful.”


Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Mosquewith No Comments →

More perspectives on the ‘Ground Zero mosque’08.06.10

I’m on vacation for two weeks after today.

Will be back around around Aug. 23.

Just returned from a press conference beneath Westchester County’s 9/11 memorial at the Kensico Dam.

Two people who lost loved ones on 9/11 came out to oppose—you guessed it—the planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

They were very emotional, as you might expect.

Liam McLaughlin, the former Yonkers City Council member who is running for state Senate, organized the presser.

I’ll also have an article on LoHud/Journal News in a few days (maybe Tuesday) about how suburban Muslims are reacting to the big Ground Zero debate.

They fear that opposition to the center is kind of morphing into general anti-Islamism. The Upper Westchester Muslim Society, which is planning to build its own Islamic Center in Ossining, is getting antsy about whether all the downtown rhetoric might move north.

One thing that’s becoming clear is that the Cordoba Initiative, the group seeking to build the downtown center, is doing a poor job of PR. Their leaders need to be out there, explaining who they are, what they’ve done and what they hope to do. They also need to get their many Christian and Jewish friends (and they have many) to speak out.

Right now, most New Yorkers probably don’t know the Cordoba Initiative from any other Muslim group.

That’s not going to cut it, it seems.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Mosque, Oppositionwith 2 Comments →

Opinions, opinions on ‘Ground Zero mosque’08.04.10

There are so many statements coming out on the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”—it would actually be a community center two blocks away from Ground Zero—that I figured I should share a few in one place.

After the ADL came out against the Cordoba Initiative’s plans, the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris (of Chappaqua!) gave a qualified blessing to the center. He wrote, in part:

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We hope the Cordoba Center will fulfill the lofty mission its founders have articulated. They have set the bar high, describing it as a Muslim-inspired institution similar to the 92nd Street Y. If so, it means a facility truly open to the entire community—and to a wide spectrum of ideas based on peace and coexistence.

Once up and running, it won’t be long before we know if the founders have delivered on their promise. If so, New York and America will be enriched. If not, the center should be shunned.

Presently, there are two legitimate concerns about the proposed center.

First, with a $100 million price tag, what are the exact sources of funding? The public has a right to know that the donors all subscribe to an open, inclusive and pluralistic vision of the center.

Second, do the center’s leaders reject unconditionally terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology? They must say so unequivocally. This is critical for the institution’s credibility. There is no room here for verbal acrobatics. Otherwise, the pall of suspicion around the leaders’ true attitudes toward groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah will grow—spelling the center’s doom.

If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York. In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands—the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.

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The American Center for Law & Justice, a public interest law firm with an evangelical bent that defends religious liberty, filed a suit today against the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (which did not give landmark status to the building that would be replaced by the Islamic center).

The ACLJ says:

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The suit charges that the city violated the New York City Charter and the New York City Administrative Code.  Among the assertions made in the suit:  the city failed to properly review and consider the public comments about the project, acted hastily in voting to deny landmark status, and failed to acknowledge the significance of the site as a historic and hallowed landmark from the tragic attacks of 9-11.

“The denial of landmark status to the building was an arbitrary and capricious abuse of discretion and contrary to decades of administrative precedent,” the petition argues.

The lawsuit also notes that the building has been under consideration for landmark status long before 9-11.  And, that the designation is even more appropriate now since part of a hijacked plane from the 9-11 attacks crashed through the roof of the building.

The petition states:  “The building stands as an iconic symbol to an uninterrupted linkage of the rise of American capitalism with our current quest to preserve our freedom and democracy.  The building, therefore, should stand as part of the commemorative and educational experience of our shared political, cultural and historic heritage.”

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The liberal group People for the American Way says:

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Of course a Muslim community center should be allowed in lower Manhattan. This is not a close question.

“Our country is built upon the bedrock principle that people of all faiths and of no faith at all are equally welcome in our nation’s civic life.  No community should be told to move away because of its religion.  Arguing that Muslims are unwelcome anywhere is a threat to religious liberty everywhere.  Religious intolerance is not the American way.

“Those political leaders who have spoken out against religious intolerance should be applauded—they have taken a stand for our most essential values.  It’s deeply disappointing that so many of their colleagues chose instead to use this incident to inflame religious strife.

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In the New York Observer, longtime Westchester pol Richard Brodsky, now running for Attorney General, says that he is personally opposed to the mosque but would defend the Cordoba Initiative’s legal right to build it.

He says: “This is the scene of a horrific mass murder. It’s not just another site. The murder wasn’t an Islamic crime, but it was a crime committed in the name of Islam by people most Muslims reject. I get that. But if you are the family of a victim, there are sensitivities involved that we should all respect.”

And: “The political conversation has reduced this to stereotypes, that if you are against the mosque you are a bigot, and if you are in favor of the mosque you are terrorist. I reject that. It’s still possible to be a public official and be thoughtful.”

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Mosquewith 1 Comment →

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