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FIRST-PERSON: Religious freedom & the NYC mosque

BAGHDAD (BP)–As I write this article, I am sitting in the chapel of the International Zone, Baghdad, Iraq. We are a few days into the New Dawn campaign of the U.S. military, which aims to support the new Iraqi government as we come out of combat operations. For the past several weeks, I have been watching on the Armed Forces Network (our free television service on military bases) the news coverage concerning the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. Being in my present location, with all the events happening in America and in Iraq, I find myself reflecting.

My unit deployed in March to Iraq to conduct convoy operations. In the summer, in preparation for New Dawn, our mission changed to assume command of the International Zone and help turn over operations to the government of Iraq. From my perspective, and those of several soldiers in my unit, we would say that Iraq is certainly better off than it has been, especially during the days of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, the government still has a great deal of work in many areas.

Our role in Iraq has also been to help win the hearts and minds of Iraqis through humanitarian missions and establishing local relationships with religious leaders. One such local leader is the Rev. Canon Andrew White.

Canon White is the rector (pastor) of St. George’s Church of Baghdad, the only Anglican Church in the country, established during the time when Iraq was a British territory. Canon White, also titled the vicar of Baghdad by the Church of England, plays an important role as a peace ambassador in the Middle East. He has been kidnapped. He has been beaten. He has lain on a floor with body parts scattered around him. Yet, he faithfully continues to preach and works for peace in one of the most dangerous places in the world today. He faces such persecution because he is one of the few vocal Christians in the city working for the good of Iraq.

Given Canon White’s persecution in Baghdad, I have reflected on what the situation would be like if it were reversed. What would the situation be like for those who are not the religious majority of a country?

Christians rarely face such situations in America anymore. Baptists were some of the earliest proponents of religious freedom in America. Roger Williams (though a Baptist for only a short time) founded Rhode Island to be a place where religious minorities could practice their faith without persecution in part because he suffered persecution as a religious minority. I wonder if we have become so far removed from the time of Roger Williams that we have forgotten about the principles of religious freedom for which he advocated.

Now, let us turn our reflections to the Muslims building the mosque near Ground Zero. I do not personally know the Muslims wanting to build the mosque near Ground Zero, but should we not be careful with our stereotypes of all Muslims? Would we want Muslims characterizing all Christians as “radical” just because a few extremists bombed abortion clinics?

Let me state for the record that I personally do not want to see a mosque on every corner of America. I would hope that all Muslims would realize what a sacred place Ground Zero is and would be sensitive to these issues. Even as the issue of the “Ground Zero” mosque unfolds in the next few months, other issues may arise concerning the motivations of the mosque’s advocates. Similar stories have arisen all across America concerning mosques being built. Nevertheless, I am in favor of religious freedom, one of the principles on which America was founded. This means that, if all the legal and financial criteria have been met, even Muslims have the right to build a worship center on property they own. I wonder if the situation were reversed with the government telling a church it could not build a building because it was too close to an abortion clinic that had been bombed, would we be saying something different?

I also believe that we are capitulating to the fear of radical Islamic extremists by showing opposition to a mosque being built near such a hollowed site as Ground Zero. One of the military goals of terrorists is to strike fear into the heart of the general populace through unpredictable attacks and catastrophes. Though the building of a mosque is by no means a “terrorist act,” one of the fears echoed in blogs and news reports is that the mosque will be a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Are we willing to allow our fears to grow so much that we are willing to sacrifice our treasure of religious freedom for all?

These situations and questions are not easy to answer. I believe that we need to take an honest assessment of our own attitudes and stereotypes as America moves forward. At the end of the day, I believe the Gospel is the only hope we have. I do not mean this as a mere cliché. Only the Gospel can transform individuals, families, communities, cities, and ultimately nations. Believers of any religion can build whatever buildings they desire. Nevertheless, they cannot stop the Kingdom of God from growing in a person’s heart when the Gospel is shared. Whether in Iraq or America, we must look to the Lord to be our strength and only hope.
Page Brooks is chaplain with the Louisiana National Guard currently serving in Iraq, and assistant professor of Islamic studies and theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Brooks has served as a pastor and church planter. Brooks is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article which do not reflect the views or opinions of any organization to which he is affiliated.

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  • Page Brooks