The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 8, 2005

Flight 93 memorial challenged

Crescent is Islamic symbol, local preacher contends


Somerset — A well-known Somerset County street preacher is vowing to fight the design of the Flight 93 National Memorial, contending that its dominant use of a crescent pathway is a symbol of Islam.

The Rev. Ron McRae said Thursday attorneys for Street Preachers Fellowship in Lancaster will look into obtaining an injunction to stop the design from proceeding.

“The crescent is as much connected to Islam as the cross is to Christianity,” said McRae of Conemaugh Township, self-proclaimed bishop of Bible Anabaptist Church near Jerome.

“This is a memorial to the terrorists who killed those people, not a memorial to the folks who died there innocently,” said McRae, the leader of a small, fundamentalist congregation. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Called “Crescent of Embrace,” the design by Paul Murdoch Associates of Los Angeles centers around a mile-long semicircle of red maples surrounding the point of impact, where 40 passengers and crew were killed when the hijacked plane crashed near Shanksville on Sept. 11, 2001. The four Islamic hijackers have been connected to al Qaida.

Though not accepted by all Muslims, the crescent moon and star is an internationally recognized symbol of Islam. It is used on flags for Algeria, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and other Muslim countries.

The symbolism was not lost on the jury that recommended the final design, which was approved by the Flight 93 Advisory Commission Wednesday in Washington.

Buried deep in its report, the jury wrote in a list of recommendations that planners should rethink the word crescent.

“Consider the interpretation and impact of words within the context of this event,” the jury report said. “The ‘Crescent’ should be referred to as the ‘circle’ or ‘arc’ or other words that are not tied to specific religious iconography.”

Fouad El Bayly of Somerset, leader of the Islamic Center of Johnstown, said he immediately would recognize the symbolism of the crescent in the design.

“It’s not a holy symbol or something to pray to,” El Bayly said. “It’s just something to be identified with the Muslim calendar.

“When it comes to a memorial, all mankind sympathizes. They recognize it was against everybody.”

In a telephone interview Thursday from New York, Murdoch said the design carries no religious overtones. Instead, he said, the crescent was created to add formality to the bowl-shaped valley surrounding the crash site.

“This is not about any religion per se,” Murdoch said. “It’s a spiritual space, and a sacred place, but it’s open to anyone.”

Murdoch used an architectural definition of crescent.

“It’s a generic term for a form that’s basically a curved line,” he said. “Sure, there is an Islamic crescent. But it has a very different form.

“Theirs is a lunar crescent. Ours isn’t based on that.”

The design itself – not its name – was the key consideration, said Henry Cook, president of Somerset Trust Co. and a member of the second-stage jury.

“We suggested the name be changed,” Cook said. “Someone did point out that the crescent had certain religious overtones.

“I think this particular design spoke more strongly to unity and healing.”

Cook pointed out that the circle of maples will only be blaze red for about two weeks in October. Otherwise, it will be green in spring and summer, and bereft of leaves in the harsh winter.

“Yes, that fiery red is very impressive,” he said. “But understand that’s not the way it’s going to be for most of the year.”

Helene Fried, an adviser for the design competition, said Murdoch was not aware of the symbolism when he developed the winning entry.

But Fried said the connection was raised by some history buffs on the jury during three days of deliberations last month.

“It wasn’t intentional,” Fried said in a telephone interview from New York. “It was merely the embrace of taking in a larger family.”

“Crescent of Embrace” was unveiled Wednesday in Washington to overwhelming support from Flight 93 family members and crash site ambassadors. When a drape was dropped to reveal the winner, family members and others in attendance stood, clapped and hugged.

Some said the design perfectly blends the serene landscape with the solemnity of a cemetery, while others pointed to a stirring 93-foot tower of wind chimes at its entrance and the symbolism of how Somerset County embraced grieving families.

If the design proceeds, McRae declared he will routinely preach his concerns by the park off Route 30 in Stonycreek Township when construction begins in about two years. The memorial is expected to be completed by the 10th anniversary of the crash.

McRae gained prominence in the 1990s by protesting outside the Casa Nova, an openly gay bar in Jenner Township. He also commonly preaches outside Catholic Rosary Rallies or near Central Park in Johnstown.

“They wouldn’t dare put up the Ten Commandments or the cross of Christ, but they’re going to put up a red crescent,” he said. “That design should be scrapped, and they should go back and pick another one.

“We’re not going to stand idly by and allow this to happen. This preacher and others are going to be out there letting them know what Christians in this community are thinking."