Minnesota’s Chemberlin decries “xenophobia, bigotry” of opponents of Islamic center near 9/11 site


Gov. Tim Pawlenty isn’t the only Minnesotan weighing in on an Islamic center planned for construction near New York’s World Trade Center: Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and president of the National Council of Churches, is among leaders of 40 American Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups who issued a statement today condemning the “xenophobia and religious bigotry” behind opposition like Pawlenty’s to the Cordoba House, an Islamic center planned two blocks from Ground Zero.

Pawlenty, presumably trying to buttress his rightwing bonafides for a likely presidential run, said he “strongly opposed” the New York project, calling it “inappropriate” and suggesting that it would be an affront to the victims of 9/11. “[F]rom a patriotic standpoint, it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred ground, and we should respect that,” he said. Local Muslim groups urged the governor to retract the statement, and Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in Congress, said Pawlenty was trying to appeal to the “most extreme elements of his party” with the opinion, adding, “I hope he doesn’t want to be president so bad that he’s willing to dishonor the First Amendment and our heritage of religious tolerance.”

But it’s Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin – who called the project a “provocation” that “stabs at the heart” of America – not Pawlenty, who are named by the 40 religious leaders.

“Christians who believe in the values of religious freedom and interfaith cooperation welcome plans for Cordoba House, a center of culture and dialogue that will honor our nation’s highest ideals,” said Chemberlin, in a statement released to coincide with the interfaith group Faithful America’s petition to “Stand with Muslim Americans.” She went on:

“We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion and peace by associating all Muslims with violent extremism. That’s like equating all Christians to Timothy McVeigh’s actions. This center will reflect not only the best of Islam, but the enduring hope that Christians, Jews and Muslims can together find common ground in addressing the most urgent challenges of our time.”

The Catholic magazine America describes the planned project:

The Cordoba House is a planned $100 million, 13-story, glass and steel Islamic community center, which will include a mosque, a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bookstore. it will offer space for Friday prayers for 1,000-2,000 Muslims. The proposed construction will replace an existing 1850s Italianate building that was damaged in the September 11 attacks, about two blocks from the WTC site.

Here’s the text of the statement signed by Chemberlin:

Interfaith Leaders Stand with Cordoba House, Denounce Hateful Rhetoric

As Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders and scholars committed to religious freedom and inter-religious cooperation, we are deeply troubled by the xenophobia and religious bigotry that has characterized some of the opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque near where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, is the most recent prominent opponent to cast this debate in a way that demonizes all Muslims and exploits fear to divide Americans. “It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way,” Gingrich, a Catholic, said in a statement. Sarah Palin, an evangelical Christian who frequently references her faith as an inspiration for her political beliefs, called plans for the center a “provocation.” Fox News has aired a steady stream of irresponsible commentary and biased coverage that reduces what should be a civil debate into starkly combative terms.

The profound tragedy of Sept. 11th revealed the horror that can unfold when a small minority of violent extremists manipulates religious language for political gain and falsely claims to represent one of the world’s great religions. We have witnessed this sinful corruption of religion across faith traditions throughout history and must condemn it without equivocation whenever or wherever it occurs. However, we fail to honor those murdered on that awful day – including Muslim Americans killed in the Twin Towers and Pentagon – by betraying our nation’s historic commitment to religious liberty, fueling ugly stereotypes about Islam and demeaning the vast majority of Muslims committed to peace. The proposed mosque would be part of Cordoba House, a center open to all Americans that will provide Islamic, interfaith and secular programs. The project aims to support “integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture,” according to the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes improved “Muslim-West relations.” These are exactly the kind of efforts that foster dialogue, break down barriers and begin to build a world where religiously inspired violent extremism is less likely.

Mr. Gingrich, Ms. Palin and other prominent voices privileged to have the ear of the media would make a more lasting contribution to our nation if they stopped issuing inflammatory statements and instead helped inspire a civil dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims committed to a future guided by the principles of compassion, justice and peace. Fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric only undermine treasured values at the heart of diverse faith traditions and our nation’s highest ideals.

The Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin
President, National Council of Churches
Executive Director, Minnesota Council of Churches

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary
National Council of Churches

The Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston
Director, Disciples Justice Action Network
Coordinator, Disciples Center for Public Witness

The Rev. Chloe Breyer
Executive Director
The Interfaith Center of New York.

Lisa Sharon Harper
Executive Director
New York Faith and Justice

Simon Greer
President and CEO
Jewish Funds for Justice

Rabbi Joy Levitt
Executive Director
Jewish Community Center in Manhattan

Rabbi Marc Schneier
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding

Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Executive Director
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association

Rabbi Irwin Kula
CLAL – National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

Rabbi Abie Ingber
Founding Director
Interfaith Community Engagement
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio

Jeremy Ben-Ami

J Street
Salam Al-Marayati
Muslim Public Affairs Council

Mohamed Elsanousi
Director of Community Outreach
Islamic Society of North America

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer
Associate Professor
Director, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Rabbi Gerald Serotta
Clergy Beyond Borders

Virginia Avniel Spatz
Program Director
Clergy Beyond Borders

Sister Mary Waskowiak, RSM
Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
Executive Director
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA
Leadership Conference of Women Religious

David Robinson
Executive Director
Pax Christi USA

Marie Dennis
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Co-President Pax Christi International

T. Michael McNulty, SJ
Justice and Peace Director
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
John Esposito
University Professor & Founding Director

Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
Georgetown University

John Zoll
Associate Director

Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
Georgetown University

James E. Hug, S.J.
Center of Concern

Sister Maria Riley, OP
Senior Advisor
Center of Concern

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun
New York, NY

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation
Evanston, IL

Rabbi Sue Levy
Houston, Texas

Rabbi Dev Noily
Oakland, CA

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
Congregation Shaarei Shamayim
Madison, WI

Paul Lakeland
Professor of Catholic Studies
Director, Center for Catholic Studies
Fairfield University

Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
Senior Fellow
Woodstock Theological Center
Georgetown University

Robin Darling Young
Associate Professor
Department of Theology
University of Notre Dame

Alex Mikulich
Research Fellow
Jesuit Social Research Institute
Loyola University, New Orleans

Stephen Schneck
Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies
Catholic University of America

David J. O’Brien
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Dayton

Terrence W. Tilley
Professor of Catholic Theology
Chair, Theology Department
Fordham University
Bronx, New York

Nicholas P. Cafardi
Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law
Duquesne University School of Law

Jeannine Hill Fletcher
Associate Professor of Theology
Fordham University

Lew Daly
Senior Fellow

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza
Stillman Professor
Harvard Divinity School

John Renard
Professor of Theological Studies
Saint Louis University

Bradford E. Hinze
Professor of Theology
Fordham University
Bronx, New York

Sandra A. Yocum
Chair of Religious Studies
University of Dayton

Affiliations listed for identification purposes only.