Long Island, NY (CNS taken from The Long Island Catholic)—Two controversies, with seemingly similar issues involving property rights and religious expression, are playing out in New York City this month: the proposed construction of an Islamic community center and mosque in close proximity to ground zero, and the Empire State Building's rejection of a request to honor Blessed Teresa of Calcutta on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Actually, however, there is much more that is different than similar about these issues.
Most glaringly, in our view, is the question of whether, in each instance, controversy is even justified. On the question of the mosque, strong feelings on both sides are entirely understandable.
We need of course to guard against religious intolerance, and any tendency to demonize Islam as a whole for the murderous terrorism of Islamic extremists. We Catholics know all too well the terrible consequences that can result when the evils committed by some, ostensibly in compliance with their religious beliefs, are used to stigmatize and castigate an entire faith community.
At the same time, there seem very real and legitimate questions about the background, beliefs, and past statements of the imam associated with the ground zero project; and it seems therefore not out of bounds for reasonable people to seek answers to those questions.
Nor, given such questions, should calls for special sensitivity to the victims of 9/11 and their families be casually dismissed. Analogies have been made to Pope John Paul II's decision some years ago to ask the Carmelite nuns to relocate their convent from just outside the former Auschwitz Nazi death camp. There was no question about the sisters' prayerful, penitential intent; yet after much prayerful deliberation, Pope John Paul II concluded that out of sensitivity and respect for the victims of the Holocaust, the convent should be moved.
And so -- even while the mosque issue is undoubtedly susceptible to political, religious and cultural exploitation -- reasonable people can and do disagree as to its appropriateness at ground zero. The controversy is understandable.
Not so the question of lighting the Empire State Building in blue and white, the colors of Blessed Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, to commemorate her 100th birthday Aug. 26. Why should this even be controversial? Why would the Empire State Building ownership, who have lit its towering edifice over the years in honor of others who have rendered public service, refuse to do so for this Nobel Prize-winning missionary to the "poorest of the poor?"
While a recently revised application form for such honors refers to a "specific policy against lighting for religious figures," that policy appears to have been revised after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights first requested the lighting honor for Mother Teresa back in February -- filling out an application that contained no such restrictions. And, as Catholic League president William Donohue points out, the building has in the past been lit in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Salvation Army, and even Catholic Church leaders Pope John Paul II and Cardinal John O'Connor -- all of whom, like Mother Teresa, were known for humanitarian efforts and human rights advocacy inspired by their religious convictions.
Of course, as a private organization, the Empire State Building has the right to act as it wishes. But so do the Catholic League and others, in protesting its decision. In fact, that is another key difference with these two issues. Opponents of the ground zero mosque sought government intervention to block its construction on private property. Supporters of lighting the Empire State Building to honor Mother Teresa - even though they enjoy the support of such city government leaders as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn -- are trying to use public opinion and moral suasion, not government coercion, to get ownership to change its mind.
In the meantime, as Msgr. Rick Figliozzi notes, the controversy is serving to draw greater attention to Mother Teresa's life and legacy. And that should inspire us to honor her memory not only with tributes and -- as Mayor Bloomberg appropriately suggests -- good works on her birthday. It should move us to strive to imitate, as best we can, her entire life of humble, loving service to those in need -- through whom she loved and served her Lord and Savior.