On Thursday, starting at 5 pm, Pope Francis will visit New York City the first time. The next day, in a gesture of religious solidarity for peace, the pontiff has asked 700 clergy and other leaders to assemble at the remnant of a protective foundation wall for the World Trade Center that is now part of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.
About ten or twelve local faith leaders will say prayers and read Scriptures alongside the world leader of all Roman Catholics. Pope Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, visited the site before the opening of the Museum during his 2008 visit to the United States, but Francis’ visit is putting a special emphasis on the multi-religious service at the heart of New York City that was devastated by a malformed religious attack.
Among the religious leaders alongside the pontiff at the front of the service will be Reverend A.R. Bernard of the Christian Culture Center in Brooklyn, Archbishop Demetrios of America, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue, Imam Khalid Latif of the Islamic Center at New York University, Ms. Uma Mysorekar of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, Ms. Yasukoi Niwano of the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Center of New York, and Satpal Singh of the Sikh community. Sarah Sayeed, an advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio will read a translation from an Arabic proclamation.
A Journey through NYC religions has interviewed several of the religious leaders in order to provide over the next couple of days windows into their expectations of the September 11 Memorial inter-religious service.
The Pope will first land in Washington, DC where he will meet with President Barack Obama, Congress and hold various religious and faith-based ministry gatherings. In New York City the pontiff will hold an evening prayer on Thursday for clergy at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral service for priests.
According to A Journey through NYC religions Data Center, Catholics make up about 36% of the NYC metropolitan region with most surveys finding between 40-45% of NYC residents identifying as "Catholic." About two-thirds of the NYC metropolitan area residents identify as Christian.
On Friday he will make an address at the United Nations before proceeding to the inter-religious service at the September 11 Memorial. Later, he will teach a class on the importance of caring for the environment at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic School. He also meet students from at least three other schools and people helped by Catholic Charities.
Then, the Pope will motorcade through Central Park on his way to hold Mass at Madison Square Garden at 6 pm. The next morning he will depart for the World Meeting of Families and other events, leaving the United States on Sunday evening, September 27.
Religious leaders bring a host of hopes to the meeting with Pope Francis
Some Muslim leaders hope that the Catholic leader will help correct the perception that all Muslims are entangled in violence and terrorism. The September 11 Memorial is an ambiguous symbol for many Muslims because they worry that it will attached them to the radical Islam group Al Qaeda. Most Muslims in New York City are not sympathetic to the terrorist strain of Islam.
There is an all-time record high of 285 mosques in the city attracting over half a million adherents with another 250,000 in the suburbs, according to a study by A Journey through NYC religions Data Center. The first recorded mosque was established in 1893. Now, mosque founding is taking place at a fast pace because of the need to tend to the spiritual needs of new Muslim immigrants.
In 2010, a national controversy arose when Muslim real estate developer Sharif El-Gamal and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf proposed plans to develop an Islamic Community Center within the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. The plan was that the center would include a museum of Islamic culture, a prayer space, and a space for interfaith dialogue. Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s offer to conciliate the controversy is a move among religious leaders to find a way out that honors the central role of faith and religious liberty in the city and the sensitivities of a city still hurting from the 911 attacks. Though El-Gamal still owns the lot, the backlash from opponents of the project and internal disagreements about how to move ahead has brought the development to a standstill.
Pope Francis has made several big symbolic outreaches to Muslims in the past, though he has not shied away from denouncing the persecution of Christians in some Muslim lands. During a three-day visit to Turkey last November, Pope Francis ask President Recap Tayyip Erodogan, a conservative Muslim leader, to to defend Christians’ right to worship without fear. Then, he visited Turkey’s spectacular Blue Mosque to stand in prayer with Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran.
This “multi-religious service” at the 9/11 Memorial is also similar to efforts taken by the pontiff during his visit to Israel in May 2014. After touring the Dome of the Rock, a location sacred to Muslims as the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, Pope Francis then visited the Western Wall of the Old City of Jerusalem with Muslim leader Omar Abboud and Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
Together, the three men prayed, each in his own way, and addressing each other as “brother,” they embraced. The Pope is demonstrating a new concept of the public square in which leaders of different faiths(and non-faith) can stand, pray, and act together without abandoning, compromising, or overshadowing their own convictions.
New York City’s religious leaders will guide the Pope through a city that has moved past its “Sodom and Gomorrah” period, left behind rigid secularism, and embraced a postsecular public square that has room for everyone on an equal basis.