At our last FAMA Board meeting on Wednesday Sept. 1 we worked together to produce a statement responding to the Park 51 controversy. The statement was submitted to the AJC with the hope of it being accepted as an op ed piece on the eve of Rosh Hashana but it was not printed. Nevertheless, we wanted all of you, our constituancy, to read it.

On the last day of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting, and on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays, The Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta (FAMA) is dismayed by the deteriorating conversations about Park51, the proposed community center for Muslims in lower Manhattan. FAMA is committed to the bedrock liberty of the free exercise of religion and religious expression that has allowed the United States of America to flourish as a beacon of freedom. Many of the individual faith communities that make up FAMA have benefited from this protection, allowing metro Atlanta to thrive as a diverse faith community.

But we cannot be concerned only with what’s happening in our metro Atlanta neighborhoods. The Park51 debate, the recent news that the pastor of a Florida church wants to burn Qurans to protest the 9/11 attack, and the act of arson at the construction site of a future mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, all call for a response.

FAMA is sensitive to the grief of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11. In 2002, our first interfaith program was to host, on behalf of the city of Atlanta, the memorial service for all those who died on September 11th 2001. We continued to host the 9/11 memorial service for several years after the tragedy. Even then, we balanced the need to mourn with the need to rebuild, connect and extend bridges with our neighbors. This was especially true of our desire to strengthen our connections to the Muslim community who endured not only deep grief but also undue suspicion in the wake of the attacks.

We want to support the diverse communities in New York City and Murfreesboro and encourage them to see this as an opportunity for healing and building bridges. Instead of allowing the fear and hate of some to direct our energies, let us all be guided by each of our traditions’ wisdom that instructs us to welcome and know each other. Park51 seeks to become a community center that, like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Jewish Community Center (JCC), provides social, educational and recreational opportunities for people of the Muslim faith, as well as other individuals regardless of their religious identification. Plans for the mosque in Murfreesboro include educational and recreational facilities, a gym, a cemetery, and a children’s playground. Both these centers will not only allow American Muslims to celebrate their faith, heritage, traditions and history, but are intended to be a place of cultural exchange and interfaith learning.

In a time of growing fear, faith communities must be voices of courage, acceptance and respect. Let us replace the heated rhetoric with sincere and open dialogue. Using Park51 as political fodder is divisive and causes harm to all of us. We call on all people of conscience and faith to oppose the bigotry that has framed parts of this debate. We commend Mayor Bloomberg, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and other supporters of this project, and urge them to be steadfast in making a decision that supports all faith communities and is based not on fear but on hope in our future as a diverse and welcoming society. Together, as people to faith, we can build the kind of America that establishes harmony amidst religious diversity and celebrates pluralism, allowing Muslim Americans, and all of us, to be safe and at home in the United States of America.

Jill Ulrici, FAMA Board President