From Ground Zero chaplain to religious freedom ambassador

Ira Block A keyboard to a computer. Very few pieces of office equipment were found in the recovery operation post … Continued

Ira Block

A keyboard to a computer. Very few pieces of office equipment were found in the recovery operation post 9/11.

The morning of September 11, 2001, I was in the Bronx. I had just returned from voting in the primary election when I heard about the first airplane striking the World Trade Center. The enormity of what was happening did not strike me until later as more news reports came in and I picked up a hitchhiking firefighter who told me that he was in need of a ride because he had received a call to report to his station.

Being a NYPD chaplain, I was soon asked to report to police headquarters –10 blocks from Ground Zero. Families of officers who were missing in action after the collapse of the towers had gathered there and I and the other seven chaplains, prayed, counseled and consoled them.

I then went to Ground Zero itself to work with police, fire fighters and medics as they worked into the night to look for survivors, including so many of their colleagues who had put themselves in harm’s way to help others. When rescue personnel saw I was a chaplain, they paused to catch their breath and to pray–regardless of their religion. At that moment I saw the unifying power of religion-almost in direct contrast to those who tried to use religion as a false excuse to commit violence against innocent people. In the face of adversity, Americans prayed together and we were even more unified. We saw our common humanity and sought to find common ground.

Those experiences are part of what inspired me to accept the Secretary Clinton’s invitation to take our American message of tolerance and religious freedom to the world. I was also profoundly influence by what President Obama said in Cairo, Egypt in June, 2009 that “People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul,” President Obama, again in Cairo, articulated that we should all be free to exercise our faith and cultural beliefs-respectful of others. It is with this mandate that as the United States Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, I seek openings for dialogue and action on increasing international religious freedom for all peoples around the world.

Governments can help citizens by allowing people of all faiths to practice their religion in peace. As the United States’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I will continue to use all the tools available to me to promote religious freedom. I will travel to many of the countries where religious freedom is under pressure, I will urge governments to protect religious minorities and eliminate discrimination and marginalization based on religious affiliation, and advocate for the benefits that a tolerant religious environment can bring to a nation.

Countries that respect the faith of their citizens will be the stronger for it and can be a part of the pursuit for peace and understanding among those of all faiths. This is the message that I carry in the spirit of 9/11.

Suzan Johnson Cook is United States ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom in the State Department.

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