GUEST EDITORIAL - Interfaith dialogue at Ground Zero

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On Sept. 11, 2001, my cousin, Michael Francis Lynch, a firefighter temporarily assigned to Engine 40, Ladder 35 in Manhattan, entered the south tower of the World Trade Center not very long before it collapsed. He was 30 years old and engaged to be married to Stephanie Luccioni.

His father, Jack Lynch, spent each day thereafter at Ground Zero, searching through the rubble, looking for survivors and the remains of the dead. More than 2,500 mourners crowded the Mass of celebration for Michael's life on Dec. 7, 2001, in St. Frances de Chantal Church in the Bronx.

Then, finally, on March 21, 2002, Michael's body was found. The medical examiner determined that Michael was either carrying a woman or shielding her with his coat. Their remains were mingled. The family had to wait until May 3, 2002, to bury Michael as the medical examiner required the additional time to separate the remains properly. The Lynch family hopes, somehow, to be able to identify that woman.

Michael Francis Lynch was only one of the 343 firefighters who died that day at Ground Zero and that number of firemen is only a little more than a tenth of those who died in the 9/11 disaster. The reality on the ground at Ground Zero and throughout New York City nine years later is a vast, heavy and interminable grief that lies just below the surface.

We should not be surprised that there is so much opposition to building a community center/mosque close to Ground Zero. Two-thirds of New Yorkers are opposed to it.

Yet, as George W. Bush told the country shortly after 9/11, we are not at war with Islam but with al-Qaeda. We know too that the freedom of religion that we proudly practice gives every religion the right to build its churches, synagogues and mosques where it sees fit.

How can we now treat each other with respect as we seek a solution that acknowledges both the freedom to build a mosque and the feelings of the majority of those who lost their loved ones on 9/11?

Since 9/11, not only in New York City but throughout the country, many Americans have reached out to Muslim-Americans, to protect them from misplaced rage, to take their children to school, to protect their mosques from vandals. 9/11 demonstrated the urgency of creating interfaith groups for the purposes of dialogue and better understanding. These groups have sprung up sporadically in major cities as well as in rural areas, like Eastern Washington, where I happen to belong to one. Only rarely were synagogues, churches and mosques united in these ways before 9/11.

During the last three years, the worldwide Muslim community has reached out to non-Muslims, calling for dialogue and solidarity. This took the initial form of an October 11, 2007, 29-page letter addressed to Christian leaders. Entitled "A Common Word Between Us and You," it was signed by 138 Muslim scholars and clerics from across the globe. This letter is an invitation to work together for peace; it cites the Quran, the Christian Scriptures and the Torah. It represents a definite effort to demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace and that moderate Muslims are willing to speak out against violence.

On Feb. 25, 2008, the same Muslim clerics and scholars addressed the Jewish community in "A Call to Peace, Dialogue and Understanding Between Muslims and Jews." Clearly an attempt to establish mutual respect and improve Jewish-Muslim relations, this call to peace, dialogue and understanding emphasizes the commonalities between the two religions with their same father, Abraham, and calls for an end to stereotypes and prejudices that dehumanize both Muslims and Jews. The responses by Christians and Jews to these Muslim initiatives were wholeheartedly favorable and highly enthusiastic.

This is the framework in which we must see the mosque/Ground Zero controversy. It is a serious bump in the road but we cannot allow it to throw us off course.

We must practice the dialogue we preach and sit down together with Thomas Merton's wisdom in our hearts: "The first real step toward peace is the recognition that the true solution to our problems is not accessible to any one isolated party … all must arrive at it by working together."

In this dialogical context, I cannot offer an answer but, perhaps, I can suggest the beginnings of one.

1. Let the Muslim group that wants to build the mosque near Ground Zero relinquish its right to do so and construct the mosque elsewhere in Manhattan. Recall that Pope John Paul II realized that building a convent at Auschwitz (which the Carmelite nuns had a perfect right to do) was simply too offensive to so many that it would ultimately cause more harm than good. Just as Pope John Paul II could not afford to lose all the Catholic/Jewish solidarity built up since the Holocaust, we cannot afford to lose what we have gained in Christian/Jewish/Muslim ecumenism since 9/11.

Such a magnanimous gesture on the part of the Muslim community would ease tensions, create trust and promote discussion. It would also demonstrate the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that: "Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal."

2. The imam of the proposed Cordoba House, Feisal Abdul Rauf, clearly a man of peace, said this week that had he known his choice of this site would have caused such heated opposition, he never would have chosen it. We must help him find an honorable way out of this dilemma. Let those who object to the building of the mosque near Ground Zero lead a campaign to raise $100 million, the cost of the mosque, to send as flood relief to those tens of thousands of Muslims suffering today in Pakistan. This would let the Muslim world know that opposition to building the mosque near Ground Zero is not synonymous with anti-Islamic sentiments.

3. Recognizing that throughout human history organized religions have been such an impediment to peace that it is difficult today to imagine a peaceful future without a major worldwide multi-religious contribution, let us construct, not near but on Ground Zero, an interfaith place of worship where people of all faiths would hold religious services. This would be a monument of hope in memory of all those Christians, Jews and Muslims who died there, an interfaith center that would incarnate Isaiah's words: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

Patrick Henry is a retired Whitman College professor living in Walla Walla. A slightly different version of this column appeared originally online at Mercywords.

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