WASHINGTON - Leaders of some three dozen mainstream U.S. religious denominations Tuesday condemned what many commentators have called a rising tide of Islamophobia touched off by the recent controversy over the construction of a Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the twin World Trade Centre towers destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our nation's capitol to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America's Muslim community," the group declared in a statement.
"We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our community, and by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship," the statement continued, adding, "We stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans."
The group, which included national leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as from the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, singled out the threat by one Florida church to publicly burn copies of the Qu'ran to mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The planned burning, which the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen.David Petraeus, warned Monday could endanger the lives of U.S. troops there and in Iraq, "is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11," the inter-religious group said.
Also on Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a leading Jewish civil rights organisation, announced the formation of a new Interfaith Coalition on Mosques to combat a wave of anti-Muslim incidents across the country.
The move by the ADL, which itself attracted intense controversy in August for opposing the Islamic centre's proposed construction in New York, was another sign of the growing concern among communal leaders that the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment triggered by the rancorous debate over the "Ground Zero Mosque", as its critics dubbed it, has reached dangerous heights.
Most mainstream critics of the project, including the ADL, did not deny the legal right of Muslims to build mosques where they choose. They argued instead that the location of the centre so close to the "sacred ground" of the World Trade Centre site showed insensitivity.
Defenders of the project noted that the proposed location was in a commercial area that already featured restaurants, bars, and strip clubs - not to mention other mosques just a few blocks away.
The controversy, however, soon touched off a broader wave of incidents targeting Muslims and mosques.
In the most notorious case, a New York City cabdriver was stabbed several times late last month by a passenger who asked whether asked him whether he was Muslim. Days later, the construction site of a mosque in Tennessee was the target of what federal investigators have described as an arson attempt.
Vandals also struck against mosques and Muslim congregations in California and New York State, while plans to build new mosques or expand existing ones have reportedly been put on hold in a number of communities across the country.
"Having spoken to many families across the country over the last few weeks, I have heard many Muslim Americans say they have never felt this anxious or this insecure in America since directly after Sep. 11," Ingrid Mattson, head of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), told reporters at the press conference where the inter-religious group released its statement.
The Saturday's 9/11 anniversary is expected to spur more controversy.
In addition to the planned Qu'ran burning, a major rally in Lower Manhattan against the Proposed Islamic centre is also planned for Sep. 11, led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, two bloggers who have been leading critics of the project.
Both have until recently been widely considered "fringe" figures, although their work has been praised or supported by a number of prominent far-right or neo-conservative personalities and groups, such as the Center for Security Policy (CSP), which itself is funded by major U.S. defence contractors and several wealthy Jewish donors who also have supported radical Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; former U.N. Amb. John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the Middle East Forum; and the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
The rally, however, will also feature Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch politician who has been denounced by the ADL and other groups for Islamophobia, and members of the English Defense League, a British far-right group. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is believed to be preparing a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and who delivered an incendiary speech against the proposed Islamic centre at AEI, originally agreed to participate in the rally but subsequently withdrew.
A growing number of foreign policy analysts and officials have warned that the escalation in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric is rebounding against U.S. national security interests by fueling perceptions in the Islamic world that the United States is anti-Islam.
Speaking of the planned Qu'ran burning, Petraeus, widely considered Washington's most popular military leader of the past generation, warned in an email to reporters that "Images of the burning of a Qu'ran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan - and around the world - to inflame public opinion and incite violence." He told the Wall Street Journal it could "endanger (our) troops and ...the overall effort" - a message that was echoed Tuesday by both the White House and the State Department.
Some of the members of the inter-religious group made similar statements Tuesday. "If (Petraeus) is correct, then we're really in trouble," said Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. "The story of bigotry and intolerance will be taken by others as a statement of America," he noted.
Expressions of hatred for Muslims "do real damage to America around the globe," said Rabbi David Saperstein, the executive director for Reform Judaism. "It is not what our religions are about."
"You may have heard some of the loud voices of those who hate Muslims," Mattson said, addressing herself directly to fellow-Muslims during the press conference. "But they don't represent America. Don't use these incidents to justify any kind of hatred against America or American Christians and Jews," she said.
Richard Cizik, a former head of the National Association of Evangelicals and currently president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, was particularly harsh toward those "mainly conservative Christians ...who are responding with open bigotry and hatred" toward fellow citizens because of their faith. Not only are they rejecting the Constitution's first amendment protecting freedom of religion, but they "bring dishonour to the name of Jesus Christ", he said.
He also noted that the "principles that protect Muslims today will protect Christians and Jews tomorrow."
Many religious leaders have noted similarities between the current attacks on Islam and earlier attacks on U.S. religious minorities, such as Jews and Catholics, especially during periods of economic distress.
R. Scott Appleby and John T. McGreevy, two prominent historians of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, recently warned in the New York Review of Books of "the revival of a strain of nativism" and "a debased effort to whip up partisan fervor" that echoes traditional attacks on U.S. Catholics.