“The Mosque at Ground Zero”


Editor’s Note: Today’s entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden. This is the first of two entries on the current debate about the building of an Islamic center near the site of Ground Zero in New York.


The proposal to establish an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, a “mosque at Ground Zero” has generated a great deal of heated debate late this summer. Clearly some are trying to rouse voter attention as the nation approaches this fall’s election season. So we have witnessed political posturing and exaggerations, as well as some thoughtful discussion of important topics for our time.


Level heads point out that the proposed center is neither literally a mosque, nor is it located at Ground Zero. People point out that the neighborhood around 45 Park Place, the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory store, features the typical mix of enterprises found in this densely occupied island. Others highlight that workday Moslems worship in the Pentagon, sharing space with Catholics, Jews, and Protestants in the military chapel just yards away from where so many gave their lives on 9/11. Others shift the debate in the direction of issues of religious freedom in Moslem countries or of concerns about security. Naturally, concern for the sensitivities of families of World Trade Center victims enters into considerations.


The branch of morality called Catholic social teaching is not a place to go for easy answers to complex questions, but it does offer principles that can be helpful in shaping thinking and consciences that contribute to public discussion and development of public policy. I offer two blog entries that bring Catholic social teaching to the issue of the proposed Islamic center. The first will look to the experience of Trappist monks in a community in Algeria. The second will look at religious freedom and relationships among religious traditions.


Monastic life can offer a striking picture of Christian values, because this lifestyle is stripped of distractions, brought down to basics. These lives can be like a parable put in motion. I like scripture scholar C. H. Dodd’s definition of a parable:


A parable is a metaphor or simile
drawn from nature or common life
arresting the ear of the hearer
by its vividness or strangeness
that leaves the mind
in sufficient doubt about it precise application
to tease it into active thought.


The lives of the monks of Our Lady of the Atlas Monastery fit that description; they are, like many of Jesus’ actions (such as eating with sinners and tax collectors), a living parable. Their community of seven Trappists was found in the village of Tibhirine in the dry, remote Atlas Mountains of Algeria. All originally from France, they lived in Algeria as brothers to each other and to the poor neighbors with whom they lived. The goal was not to proselytize but to live a typical monastic life of prayer and labor, and by love and religion to bridge two worlds that so often have been hostile. Their “common life” consisted of work, friendship, prayer, care for the sick, living among the poor, living far from home. This life gives an image of the Kingdom of God, “strange and vivid.” They set aside one of the buildings in their enclosure for use as a mosque for the neighbors so that “the sound of the bells mixed with the Muslim call to prayer.”


These monks knew Jesus very deeply and loved their Trappist and Roman Catholic identity, but they also knew, as Vatican II articulated so clearly, that religious things point beyond themselves to the infinite, all-embracing God. God will never be the tidy possession of one faith or one group. Genuine encounter with the living God expands our hearts so that we love all, even the one who sees things differently, even the one we do not understand, even the one who does us harm, even the one who is enemy to us.


In the 1990s Algeria was plagued by violent unrest from armed groups who opposed the secular government and influence from the West. Things got to the point that these groups demanded that all foreigners leave or be killed. Very aware of the danger, the Trappist community decided leaving would amount to abandoning their people, so they chose to stay.


Distinctions are very important. These monks were able to discriminate between the intentions of terrorists or fundamentalists and those of the great majority of Algerians who lived honest lives in tolerance and respect. But even with those who embrace violence, distinctions can be made between the sin and the sinner.


The leader of the monastery, Fr. Christian de Cherge, wrote a sealed letter that he gave to his family in France to open in case of his violent death. His family had lived in Algeria, and he was born and grew up there, but they left during the bloody conflict that led to independence from France. He wanted people to know why the monks stayed in Tibhirine and wanted to be sure people understood the distinctions and the “strange and vivid” love of Jesus Christ.


I invite you to read his Testament and let the moral insights he shares “arrest” us and inform our “active thought” to contribute to this public policy debate.


When we face an A-DIEU…
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil that seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in the evil that might blindly strike me down.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down. I do not desire such a death.


It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to sooth one’s conscience by identifying this religious way
with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.


For me Algeria and Islam are not that, but rather a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there the true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he think of it!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.


This is what I shall be able to do, please God:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.


For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families. You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!


And also you, my last-minute friend,
who will not know what you are doing;
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this “A-DIEU”
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


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