Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, their heads bowed over folded hands, Long Island Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders stood together Sunday in an extraordinary gathering in a Westbury mosque and prayed for religious tolerance and freedom of worship - a right they said was threatened on several fronts.
The interfaith gathering at the Islamic Center of Long Island drew about 165 people to the center's prayer room, including the region's chief Catholic, Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre Diocese - the first Long Island bishop to enter a mosque. All were asked to recognize Muslim tradition and remove their shoes before entering the prayer room, decorated with American flags and traditional Thanksgiving decorations.
A nondenominational choir sang the national anthem, there were readings from the Koran, Torah and Bible, and the audience sang a song featuring the word "peace" in three languages.
"It's no divine accident that we're all different from one another," said Rabbi Meir Feldman of the Temple Beth-El synagogue in Great Neck. All are "on different paths to the one universal loving God."
The religious leaders did not all agree on how religious freedom was threatened but the dispute over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero resonated with many as an example. Polls show most New Yorkers want the mosque moved to a site farther from Ground Zero, but many Muslims find relocating the house of worship offensive.
"The Islamophobia does not stop at Ground Zero," said Habeeb Ahmed, the chairman of the Long Island Islamic center's board, citing other mosques across the country that have faced opposition.
The Rev. Mark Lukens, pastor of Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway, said the furor over the building of a mosque makes him worry for his own church's religious freedom.
"To deny them the same liberties we expect . . . is to deny our own faith and to deny this great experiment in human liberty, the dream that is the United States of America," Lukens said.
Asked later about the Ground Zero controversy, Murphy said religious freedom and the rights of family members of those who died on Sept. 11 "both have to be taken into consideration for a conversation that is civil."
Murphy said the danger to religious freedom he saw came from "elites" in the media and entertainment business who want to reduce the role of religion in public life.