STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. --- The Archdiocese of New York is defending St. Margaret Mary R.C. Church’s decision to sell its empty former convent in Midland Beach to the Muslim American Society, saying there is no proof that the organization has terrorist links.
“I’ve not heard anything that says this is a terrorist organization,” said Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “So I would hate to even use a word like that when that word only serves to inflame people’s emotions.”
The agreement to sell the empty, 2 1/2 -story building in Midland Beach drew hundreds of angry neighbors to an emergency meeting of the Midland Beach Civic Association last week.
MAS, a national nonprofit with 53 chapters, plans to build a mosque and community center with after-school programs for children, but members of the community were upset that they knew nothing about the Islamic organization or its intents before the deal was made. Some insisted MAS had an affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been questioned for terrorist practices.
The Advance has learned that on June 9, representatives of MAS will attend the Midland Beach Civic Association meeting to answer residents’ questions.
Mahdi Bray, the executive director of MAS Freedom National, who is based in Washington, D.C., said he was disappointed the local chapter in Brooklyn did not reach out to the community sooner, but insisted his group was not involved with the Muslim Brotherhood or any terrorist organizations. He said community centers that the group has built elsewhere have coalesced with their neighbors, including one in Brooklyn near a police station.
“We are not insensitive to the fact that there is a fear factor out there,” Bray said. “Unfortunately, there are people who behave badly, who behave criminally, and yes, even behave in the areas of terrorism. But they are not associated with us.”
He admitted that he knew it would be difficult as “the new kids on the block” to reassure people they will be safe, but said the Brooklyn chapter has been advised to meet with people to quell their concerns. A message left with the Brooklyn chapter was not returned.
“We need to lower the temperature a little bit and the chapter needs to do some fence mending,” Bray said. “I’m hoping now this is an opportunity where we can talk a little bit and let’s not deal with hysteria and not do what I call Muslim bashing.”
The plot of land in Midland Beach occupies a 100-by-90-foot corner lot, with a current market value of $915,000, according to the city Department of Finance. The head of the civic association, Yasmin Ammirato, said the sale went through for $750,000, with the Rev. Keith Fennessy, pastor of St. Margaret Mary, spearheading the agreement.
Zwilling would not confirm the purchase price for the land, but said MAS was the highest bidder. He added that the deal was made independently of the archdiocese and that the money would go toward the parish.
“This was something that was determined by Father Fennessy, the pastor of the parish, to be the best way to proceed for the overall good of the parish,” he said.
Zwilling said the archdiocese encourages pastors to communicate with the community on major sales such as this one. However, he added that he did not see reason for neighbors to be afraid about MAS.
“Who said they are a terrorist organization?” he said. “From what I know of this group, they have been involved in some matters with, for instance, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They signed a document in the wake of 9/11 for tolerance for all.”
Some Muslims interviewed said yesterday they would welcome another mosque. They said the local Muslim community has boomed in recent years and that their religious centers are packed during praying hours.
“People need it,” said Mohamed Khadr, the secretary and treasurer of the Noor Al-Islam Society in Mariners Harbor. “On Fridays, you see all the mosques filled up.”
Still, until the group proves themselves, many said they will continue to be suspicious, adding that allowing an Islamic group into their community without any background research is irresponsible.
“The community has the right to know who is coming into the area and what they are building,” said Dr. Mohammad Khalid, head of the Pakistani Civic Association of Staten Island. “With 911 and the Times Square scare, people are afraid. It’s scary, you know. It’s very, very scary.”
Source : http://www.silive.com/eastshore/index.ssf/2010/05/staten_island_church_be_not_af.html