Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

September 14, 2010


"Consider, O nation, those that are dead, slain upon the high places. The illustrious of the people are slain upon the mountains: how are the valiant fallen!...Be desolate, for there was destroyed the shield of the valiant. For they were swifter than eagles,stronger than lions. I am desolate for you. How are the valiant fallen!" 2Kgs,1;21

With all NY, I shared the desolation of that 9/11/2001 day. I was to officiate at the wedding of a friend's daughter, Amy Lane, to David Winslow on November 17. David went down in the rubble of Tower One. Across the street from my former rectory are the NYPD 13th Precinct and Emergency Service Unit One. The 13th lost Officers Moira Smith and Bobbie Fazio; Emergency Squad One, Officer Brian McDonnell. All married, with children. I knew them. I visited ESU 1 frequently as pastor before retiring and then after 9/11. On the post mortem visits, I found the men, on 24 hour tours, sleeping in their squad room, covered with soot and exhausted from their search for body parts and IDs. Women of our Gramercy Park area had set up, 24/7, hot food tables in the precinct quarters for the NYPD and ESU men and women. The NYPD had lost twenty-three officers; the NYFD 343 firefighters, depriving 607 children of their fathers. Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial firm lost 700 employees, depriving 1300 children of a parent.

Photographer Bolivar Arellano, my Epiphany parishioner, took a remarkable series of photos, one showing Fire Chaplain Father Mychal Judge, being carried out from the ruins, dead of a heart attack. Another showed an entire Ladder Company entering the south tower shortly before it collapsed. All perished! The firefighter, front and right in the photo, was my Epiphany parishioner Bob Foti, who had a child in our Epiphany school.

For months after 9/11, I participated in many memorial Masses and services held at churches and synagogues throughout the city. I felt the desolation of the congregations in their mourning. Where body parts had been destroyed in the cataclysm, a photo of the deceased or a helmet spoke of the loved one lost. The ESU officers had brought to Epiphany a quantity of ashes from Ground Zero. They were placed in an urn in the sanctuary. Father Walter, my successor at Epiphany, has since built a remembrance memorial in the plaza fronting on the church.

By coincidence on that first 9/11, I was scheduled for the noon-day Mass at St. Thomas More's, near the apartment of my first retirement years. By noon, the extent of the cataclysm had become known. The church was filled to capacity; the sense of grief, over-powering; the noon Angelus bells signaled prayer and faith. In those first months, I heard a great talk at a meeting of the NY Press Photographers, called to deal with the trauma they had experienced at what they had seen and photographed, the most horrifying, persons leaping from the flaming heights. Two photographers had been killed, one injured. Todd Maisel, a friend, who had asked me to participate with a prayer and a few words, leapt atop a table in the restaurant and gave an impassioned talk. Like a prophet from the Bible - Todd is Jewish, he spoke of an Old Testament time, a New Testament time, and now a Newest Testament time, when our lives have been changed and we live with a new awareness of evil, but, more importantly, with the affection, respect, and love that has brought us together in a remarkably new way.

On October 12, a funeral Mass was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral for Brian McDonnell of ESU1, our neighbor across the street. No casket; just a large photo and his helmet. Maggie, his wife spoke of how they met, their love at first sight, and their embrace that produced Katie, now age 8, and Tommy, age 3. Katie had been listed to do the second reading. Sobbing, she shook her head. A police officer did the reading. Father Mike McHugh, who married them twelve years ago, spoke briefly with the feeling that can only come from the heart. There was eloquent communication in the eye contact that each of us, priests, had in giving Holy Communion to each of hundreds of police officers, a contact that spoke of a coming together in grief and in faith. After the Mass, out to Fifth Avenue, lined with hundreds of police officers; the NYPD pipes and drums; the slow step and the muffled drum beat of the death march; taps, with Maggie raising Tommy's hand in salute; then the fly-over of the police helicopters.

These are memories felt by me and thousands on each anniversary of 9/11 in quiet grief and solemn ceremony. Until this year of 2010! Now the area was tormented by the hitherto unlikely spectacle of two adversary groups, demonstrating in harsh anger. Despite the turmoil unleashed by the site proposal of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, peace was kept, symbolically, by NY's Finest - the NYPD. Rauf's proposal had come like a bulldozer, tearing up the grass of a graveyard. Rauf was a brash intruder on our hallowed ground. He flew deceptive flags of our First Amendment and religious tolerance and, thereby, set the terms of the conversation. Surprisingly, Mayor Bloomberg and many sophisticated NYers accepted his defining of the issues and the playing field. These are not the issues! Of course, he has the constitutional right to build. Religious tolerance is a non-issue. This is New York with its hundreds of mosques, thousands of the peaceful Muslims we know and live happily with and they with us: professionals of all types, shop keepers, cab and livery drivers, my computer instructor, and even NY State Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam.

And religious tolerance? That's not a NY word. Tolerance sounds like "putting up with". We NYers rejoice in the diversity of faiths and we also get along quite well with those of no faith. We share and value many of the insights, perceptions and artistic creations of those of other faiths and no faith. We will not be lectured by Imam Rauf and his developer, Sharif el Gamal, as they proclaim that they will teach NYers about religious tolerance and that the resolution of their issue will be a "defining moment" in our history. This is nonsense! Defining moments have long ago arrived; the right to build and the right to religious liberty are enshrined in constitutional and statutory provisions. Rauf and company have nothing to teach us here. But there are other values that our nation lives by: sensitivity, courtesy, and respect. These are not capable of being protected constitutionally or by statute. They are, nonetheless, quite real and essential to peaceful living. They are the real issues behind the troubling controversy now at hand. Rauf's persistence on his site-choice constitutes a gross aggression upon the sensitivity of others; his and el Gamal's self-proclaimed postures as would-be teachers are a second brash assault on NYers. A more astute New York would not have allowed them to substitute the false First Amendment issue in place of the real issue: Rauf's brutal disregard of courtesy and respect to 9/11's mourners, to the NYPD officers, the firefighters of the NYFD, the personnel of Cantor Fitzgerald and other firms - all of whom lost associates and friends, still being mourned!

Rauf's tilting of the playing field caused the loose nuts to roll out. A drunk stabs a Muslim cab driver; a bizarre minister in Florida threatens to burn bushels of Qu'rans; similar burnings by the unstable or criminal occur. US General David Petraeus warned that these actions would further inflame Muslims everywhere and put our troops at risk. Rauf has, indeed, opened a Pandora's box. As the turmoil increases, Rauf, rather than accepting compromise as a true peace-seeker would, asserts his unyielding determination and couples it with a threat: if the mosque-center site is forced to move, even more Muslim anger will result with dire consequences to US troops. He appears quite aware of the tendency of Muslim anger to become explosive.

It is curious that Mayor Bloomberg and others would so enthusiastically accept Rauf on his own terms with no questions asked. The New York Post has reported that Rauf, as owner of a building, is to appear in a Union City, NJ court on September 15 to respond to a suit brought by his tenants charging fire safety and other buildings code violations; that a second Rauf building burned in 2008, one year after Union City had leveled twelve fire safety violations against it. In addition to further background checks, questions should have been asked: What is the nature of the civil corporation; its by-laws; who are board members and officers? What is its nature as a Muslim religious organization? Its mission statement? What are its criteria, tests and procedures to exclude or to expel a non-peaceful Muslim? Its ties to other Muslim organizations? How does Rauf differentiate his Muslim faith from that of others along the wide spectrum of Islam? Has he condemned the Islam goal of world domination, the fatwah against Salman Rushdie? The oppression of Christianity and Judaism in Muslim countries; the barbaric punishments under shahira, such as amputation of limbs and death by stoning? Recently the NY Times reported that a Saudi judge had requested two hospitals about performing a spinal-cord operation on a culprit to render him paralyzed as the culprit had paralyzed another in a fight. Has Rauf or his group made public protest regarding this? Rauf's insistence on the peaceful quality of his Muslim faith is made in general terms and his opposition, is equally vague, as to violent actions permitted by Islam, such as a husband permitted to beat his wife up to shedding blood or breaking bones. Does he condemn these things publicly and specifically? What about the status of women?

These investigations and inquiries seek assurance as to the peaceful nature of the beliefs of Rauf and his group. They are not an intrusion on an individual. Like it or not, the public is too much aware of the association of Islam with violence and that many mosques have been sources of jihadists. With that assurance of peacefulness, Rauf's group will be welcomed as neighbors. But their selected site remains vigorously opposed on the solid grounds of sensitivity, courtesy, and, eminently, respect. Values they appear sadly to be lacking!