The pastor of a Staten Island parish in a controversy over the proposed sale of a vacant convent to a Muslim group has withdrawn his support for the sale after “careful reflection.” St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church has been considering selling a vacant convent to the Muslim American Society (MAS), which planned to turn the building into a mosque and community center.
Local opponents have voiced concerns about terrorism and respect for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, while the Muslim group has attributed opposition to fear and prejudice.
Fr. Keith Fennessy, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish, said in a Thursday statement that he has concluded that the proposed sale “would not serve the need of the parish.”
“I wish to formally withdraw my support for the sale, and request that it not take place."
The Archdiocese of New York said that the contents of the pastor’s letter have been shared with the trustees of St. Margaret Mary as well as the representatives of MAS.
“In the light of Father Fennessy's letter as pastor, it is our hope that an amicable resolution can be reached between Saint Margaret Mary Parish and the Muslim American Society,” the archdiocese said.
In a Friday statement, MAS said it feels “strongly” that present events are being driven by “fear and hysteria, some of it being stirred up by professional groups that have a history of being prejudiced against Muslims.”
“We are American citizens and we love our country. We do not operate as an extension of any non-American religious or political organization. What have we done wrong to cause anyone to deny us the right to build a house of worship?”
The group added that it believes in the good will of the Catholic leaders and that “ultimately they will do the right thing and allow this sale to be completed.” MAS said the Catholic community has endured “some of the same prejudice and fear mongering.”
Opponents of the sale, who included relatives of 9/11 victims, said they had not been informed about the Islamic organization or its intentions before the deal was proposed, reports say. According to the New York Post, retired New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Al Santora, whose son was a firefighter who died in the terrorist attacks, characterized the land as “a burial ground” because victims’ remains had been scattered for blocks.
Critics also voiced concern about MAS’ alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. They asked the group’s leader to denounce Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.
“MAS denounces any act of terror in the United States or outside,” commented one MAS leader at a June 9 community meeting after repeated questioning.
According to MyFoxNY.com, a video from 2000 shows the present national executive director of MAS, Mahdi Bray, cheering at a public event when someone asks to hear from Hamas supporters.
The pastor’s decision will not necessarily prevent the proposed sale, as two parish trustees must vote against it to form a majority.
Fr. Fennessy offered his resignation at the height of the controversy, an archdiocesan spokesman told SILive.com, but he remains pastor and it is unknown whether a new pastor will be appointed by the archbishop.