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January 2, 2012 4:45 pm

Interfaith Breakfast: Controversy with Your Coffee?

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke to an audience of almost 400 community leaders and clergy at the annual Interfaith breakfast. He emphasized the importance of the work of faith based communities in helping the City reach its educational and social goals. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

The Mayor’s Annual Interfaith breakfast, a traditional event on the City’s year end political calendar, is usually an informal opportunity for religious leaders from the five boroughs to interact with one another and the City’s political leadership – a time to meet and greet, and perhaps create openings for future dialogue.  It is normally an opportunity to express the solidarity of the city as a place of multifaceted communities with shared goals.

In 2011, the event took on a decidedly different undertone well before the morning meeting began, when a group of about 15 members of the Muslim community announced its decision to boycott the event, citing perceived prejudice by the New York City Police Department in its surveillance in Muslim communities.  Claims that NYPD undercover agents conducted undercover investigations of Muslims even when there was no indication of criminal activity and unfair targeting of the Muslim community were laid.

Both the Mayor and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly have strongly denied the accusations.  As Mr. Bloomberg took the podium to address the almost 400 guests, the crowd – most aware of the boycott – which included about 60 Muslims —came to its feet to give the Mayor a standing ovation.

While he did not address the controversy at Friday’s breakfast, the Mayor questioned the accuracy of the reports during his weekly radio interview with John Gambling earlier Friday morning.  “We don’t target any ethnic groups. I thought some of the reporting about it is just not accurate, or even really responsible”, he said.  “We go where the potential threats are reported to be.”

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Hofstra Professor Hussein Rashid made his protest visibly – by T-shirt, stating “I AM NOT A TERRORIST.” He acknowledged the importance of participating in the interfaith event, but called for an independent investigation of police activities.

The challenges to the Mayor were not done. From the floor, in words that started most amenably, The Rev. William Devlin stood, and shouted out “We love you, Mayor Mike—we love you.” But his continuation was less embracing.  “But please don’t kick out our houses of worship from our city schools.”

“I hear you — we’ll be happy to talk about that,” the Mayor countered, and continued his prepared remarks.

In his remarks the Mayor discussed four key subject matters and the importance of making information available, accessible and inclusive in each.  Noting his own participation in the senior bracket – and applauding New York’s increased life expectancy – he described the City’s “Facebook for Seniors” project.  Social media as a means of communication, said Bloomberg, could result in an “enhancement of lifestyle.” He called on clergy to use religious organizations to improve people lives in areas of health, safety and economic output and emphasized that social media could be used to connect congregations to city government, encouraging nonprofit groups to submit proposals and “play a role.”

The mayor noted that a “special push” would be given to female owned businesses and minority firms. “We need jobs and we will do everything we can to help people get jobs.” He described the non- profit partnership “Young Men’s Initiative,” aimed at improving health and educational opportunities for black and Latino youth and publically thanked George Soros for his $30 million contribution to the program.  Concluding his remarks, the Mayor said the City had taken up President Obama’s call for a nation of volunteers, and “is trying to harness the resources of volunteers,” and looked to faith base organizations to advance progress.

Interviewed by the Algemeiner following the breakfast, Rev. Devlin detailed a Second Circuit Federal Court decision that – after sixteen years of legal meandering – has set Feb. 12 as the day by when religious groups can no longer use public school facilities for religious activities.  He noted his concern that the ban would be extended to New York City Housing Authority properties as well. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently refused to review a lower court decision establishing the ban in public school properties. Devlin is hoping the Mayor will reverse Walcott’s decision.  He hoped for quick passage of New York City Council Resolution 1155-2011 which calls “upon the New York State legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation amending the New York State Education Law to afford houses of worship maximum access to school property.”

The ban affects groups of all ethnicities, including many Jewish congregations that use public school facilities, especially on Jewish holidays.  Some orthodox schools use other facilities, including gymnasiums.  Devlin said the decision “must be changed.” While the Mayor called for support from the faith communities, Devlin said the inability to use the school facilities was “discriminatory and if the mayor wants our support, we want his support” ,and he would work against the cooperation between city and faith based groups sought by the Mayor.

Asked why he had disrupted the breakfast, albeit briefly, Rev. Devlin said, “I got his attention.  So, as Tom Cruise says, ‘Mission accomplished.'”

Following the breakfast, Commissioner Kelly held an impromptu news conference.  “We’re doing what we have to do pursuant to the law, said Kelly, noting that the police had the support of many of Muslim faith and other faiths. He denied allegations of spying, noting that “87 Imams have expressed support for the NYPD.”

On January 1, the congregation of the Imam Al Khoei Islamic Center in Queens called upon the NYPD to investigate a Molotov cocktail attack, one of four similar incidents in Queens on Sunday. The center is home to one of the most prominent Shiite mosques in New York.  Maan Alsahlani, the mosque’s minister of religion, told the Daily News “it seemed that there were like two or three small bombs thrown at the door. … We have to worry a little bit, but we have the police here and they will find out who did this.”

A Hindu Temple was also targeted. Police are investigating the attacks against the mosque, a Hindu Temple and a bodega as possible hate crimes.

A day after the attacks, Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “The four reported attacks on Sunday night go against everything we stand for as New Yorkers and Americans. Attacks such as this have no place in our open and inclusive society and we must do all we can to ensure New York remains a safe and tolerant place for all. I am thankful that there were no reported injuries. To make sure those who perpetrated these attacks are brought to justice and we prevent future bias crimes, I have asked Superintendent of State Police Joe D’Amico and Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Liz Glazer to provide any assistance that is needed on the investigation.”

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly spoke with the Press at an impromptu news conference following the annual Interfaith Breakfast. Kelly responded to reporters questions saying the NYPD was "doing what we have to do pursuant to the law," and assured that "many of the Muslim faith and other faiths have expressed support." Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Pastor William (Bill) Devlin literally took a stand during Mayor Bloomberg's speech to express his concern about the scheduled termination of leases for space in New York City Department of Education properties currently used by faith based institutions. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

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