By Alexander Dworkowitz
Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh religious leaders gathered at the Masjid Hazrat-I-Abubaker Afghan mosque in Flushing Tuesday to announce the formation of the Coalition of Religious Leaders of Greater Flushing after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Rabbi Paul Engel of the Flushing Jewish Community Council read the mission statement of the coalition, which seeks to establish within Flushing “an interfaith discourse on all levels.”
Several of the leaders had been meeting as a group during the last few years and in the spring they decided to formalize the group into a coalition.
But it was only when the World Trade Center disaster unleashed a series of bias attacks against Muslims and Sikhs in Queens and around the country that its members met for the first time in a formal setting.
“The tragedy was a catalyst to finally bring us together,” said Rabbi Bruce Cole of the Free Synagogue of Flushing.
So far, 15 Flushing religious leaders have joined the coalition.
Rev. Nicholas Tweed of the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church said the coalition initially will concentrate on dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11.
“At this point, the primary focus of our group is to respond to Sept. 11,” he said.
Tweed said he hoped the coalition would help prevent bias attacks against Muslims and particularly Sikhs in Queens, who have been targeted in a number of documented incidents because their beards and turbans resemble those of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Mohammad Sherwani, director of the Muslim Center of New York in Flushing, agreed it was important to spread information about the Muslim and Sikh communities in Queens in order to prevent harassment.
“Our innocent non-Muslim Sikhs have been persecuted and killed in this country,” he said.
Jagmohan Singh Somra of the Sikh Center of New York also spoke of the troubles of the Muslim and Sikh communities since Sept. 11. He said the Arab terrorists who hijacked the four jetliners were not men of faith.
“A killer is merely a killer,” he said. “He does not belong to any faith.”
The meeting occurred a day after Western news services reported that the Taliban had fled Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and Northern Alliance troops had entered the city. The Taliban is accused of harboring Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, and the Northern Alliance has battled them for years.
Imam Mohammad Sherzad of Masjid-I-Abubaker, who has criticized the Taliban in the past, mentioned the fall of Kabul to the other leaders.
“Afghanistan has been partially liberated,” he said, his words translated by the director of the mosque, Ahmad Wais Afzali. “It’s good news not just for the Afghans but for the whole world.”
However, the immediate effects of Sept. 11 were not the only issue on the coalition’s mind, Cole of the Free Synagogue of Flushing was quick to point out.
“We cannot lose sight of the terrible problems that we are facing, including a major civic agenda of jobs, housing and education,” he said.
Cole added that he wanted the coalition to become involved in neighborhood issues.
But the leaders agreed the primary issue of the day was simply getting to know each other and spreading goodwill.
“Flushing is a very inclusive society,” said Rev. Canon Edmund Der of St. George’s Episcopal Church. “We must live up to that tolerant spirit.”
The leaders also expressed hope that the coalition would serve Flushing for many years.
“It’s my wishes, desires and ambitions that we should always continue such coexistence,” said Sherzad.
Reach Reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.