Religious leaders are calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reverse course and offer clergy a role in the ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Rudy Washington, a deputy mayor in former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani‘s administration, said he’s outraged. Mr. Washington organized an interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“This is America, and to have a memorial service where there’s no prayer, this appears to be insanity to me,” said Mr. Washington, who has suffered severe medical problems connected to the time he spent at Ground Zero. “I feel like America has lost its way.”
City Hall officials, who are coordinating the ceremony, confirmed that spiritual leaders will not participate this year—just as has been the case during past events marking the anniversary. The mayor has said he wants the upcoming event to strike a similar tone as previous ceremonies.
“There are hundreds of important people that have offered to participate over the last nine years, but the focus remains on the families of the thousands who died on Sept. 11,” said Evelyn Erskine, a mayoral spokeswoman.
But the mayor’s plans this year have drawn increased scrutiny and some disapproval, as the event will attract an international audience and President Barack Obama will attend.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has publicly criticized the mayor about the list of speakers, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has quietly sought to play a larger role.
But the exclusion of religious leaders has struck some as particularly glaring.
City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a pastor at New Life Outreach International, a Bronx church, said he is “utterly disappointed” and “shocked” by the event’s absence of clergy. When the terrorist attacks occurred, people in the city and nationwide turned to spiritual leaders for guidance, he said.
“This is one of the pillars that carried us through,” he said, referring to religious leaders. “They were the spiritual and emotional backbone, and when you have a situation where people are trying to find meaning, where something is bigger than them, when you have a crisis of this level, they often look to the clergy.”
Mr. Cabrera described the religious leaders’ exclusion as “wiping out the recognition of the importance that spirituality plays on that day.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and one of the participants in the September 2001 interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium, said it would be difficult to include all faiths in the ceremony.
“I understand the feelings,” he said. “[But] I don’t know how we make it possible for everyone to have a place at the table.”
“Who’s going to agree as to who the representatives of the faith…will be? We have all the different groupings. If we have four denominations, what about the fifth denomination?” he said. “There are practical considerations when planning something, where you want to be as inclusive as possible but sometimes you find it impossible to have everyone present who should be present. It’s very difficult.”
A spokesman for Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the city’s most prominent religious leader, said he had no knowledge that Mr. Dolan had been invited. On Sept. 11, the archbishop plans to celebrate Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the morning, and later in the day he’ll be at St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan.
Many religious institutions will be holding events to commemorate the anniversary. There will be an interfaith event recognizing first responders on Sept. 6.
During the 2001 “Prayer for America” service at Yankee Stadium, leaders from the major religions—Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Sikhs, Greek Orthodox—addressed the crowd of thousands and an even larger TV audience from a podium atop second base.
“I brought every major religion to this event in Yankee Stadium,” said Mr. Washington, who is considering holding a news conference on Sept. 11 to object to the exclusion of clergy.
“I’m very upset about it,” he said. “This is crazy.”
After weeks of dodging the issue, at a White House Ramadan dinner Friday night, President Obama came out in support of Park51, the planned Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away from the World Trade Center site.
While the project may represent religious tolerance, it also highlights the failure of moderate Muslims to condemn extremists and try to seriously reform Islam, says author Sam Harris—something the president has failed to acknowledge.
Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself. This is not to say, however, that I think we should prevent our fellow citizens from building “the ground zero mosque.” There is probably no legal basis to do so in any case—nor should there be. But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive. If you can raise the requisite $100 million, you might also build a shrine to Satan on this spot, complete with the names of all the non-believing victims of 9/11 destined to suffer for eternity in Hell. You could also build an Institute of “9/11 Truth,” catering to the credulity, masochism, and paranoia of the 16 percent of Americans who imagine that the World Trade Center was intentionally demolished by agents of the U.S. government. Incidentally, any shrine to conspiracy thinking should probably also contain a mosque, along with a list of the 4,000 Jews who suspiciously declined to practice their usury in the Twin Towers on the day of the attack.
The New York Times has declared that the proposed mosque will be nothing less than “a monument to tolerance.” It goes without saying that tolerance is a value to which we should all be deeply committed. Nor can we ignore the fact that many who oppose the construction of this mosque embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America—“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun. The problem, however, is that they are not quite wrong about Islam.
In his speech supporting the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.” This statement has the virtue of being almost true. But it is also true that honest, freedom-loving Muslims should be the first to view their fellow Muslims somewhat differently. At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.