Mideast meeting upsets 2 aldermen - Support for church rezoning questioned
By Gary Washburn
December 19, 2005
Incensed by a recent meeting between a Presbyterian church official and a leader of a Lebanese group with terrorist ties, two influential Chicago aldermen say they may oppose rezoning for a proposed high rise behind North Michigan Avenue's Fourth Presbyterian Church.
"I don't know how willing I will be to vote in favor of the zoning change... at the same their leader is out meeting with Hezbollah," said Ald. Edward Burke (14th). "I think we ought to reevaluate the whole relationship."
Rev. Bob Reynolds, head of the Chicago Presbytery, "is not going to get any favors from me," said Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), one of the City Council's three Jewish members.
"I will be damned if I'll [support] anything that would benefit someone who meets with terrorists opposed to peace in the Middle East," said Stone, a member of the Zoning Committee.
Reynolds was a member of a group that met for an hour in southern Lebanon with representatives of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political party labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., during a three-week trip to the Middle East in the fall.
Reynolds told the Tribune this month that the goal of the trip was educational, including permitting people to "describe their own reality."
"If that is the standard, perhaps the good reverend can seek out Osama bin Laden to learn about his murder of 3,000 innocent human beings on Sept. 11, 2001, and learn about the reality of that, in his own words," Burke said. "How soon we forget."
The City Council last Wednesday passed a resolution condemning the meeting and expressing dismay with Reynolds. The discussion of the zoning change and some of the angry dialogue initially escaped attention because it took place after reporters had left the council chamber to cover a news conference in another room by Mayor Richard Daley.
The council's resolution could impact any of the churches located inside city limits that currently do not pay for water and sewer or have other zoning arrangements with the city.
Reynolds was unavailable for comment.
Rev. John Buchanan, Fourth Presbyterian's pastor, "considers Rev. Reynolds to be a friend and of good faith and acting out of the best of intentions. [But] he does not agree with the visit and doesn't think there is any situation in which such a meeting would be appropriate," said Carolyn Grisko, a spokeswoman for Buchanan.
"He has reached out to friends in the Jewish community to apologize for pain caused by the visit," Grisko said.
But the issues of zoning and the Hezbollah meeting "are not related because Fourth Presbyterian Church was not involved in that visit," she said.
At the council meeting, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) said the resolution was misguided and a "really bad idea."
"I would remind people that the English thought that those of us who were involved in the American Revolution were traitors and terrorists," she said. "Some of the activities that those in Israel took to gain independence for the country--were those terrorist activities or were those folks engaged in freedom fighting?
"I think this is complicated, and it doesn't make sense for us to take punitive action against the Presbyterian church because of what this guy has done that we don't like."
The City Council's resolution came a day after the governing body of Chicago's 106 Presbyterian congregations divided on whether to support a national church decision to pursue divestment from U.S. companies that prolong the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories through their products and services.
Opponents, including some Jewish leaders, have lobbied the presbytery to denounce the divestment strategy since last year, some saying it smacks of anti-Semitism. Supporters argue that the measure has discouraged human-rights violations in other countries and may be the only way to effect peace in the Middle East.
Ald. Burton Natarus (42nd), who represents the ward where Fourth Presbyterian is located, already has voiced opposition to the proposed 745-foot condominium tower, which would be constructed on a parcel owned by the church behind its building. Natarus contends the project is too big, and he said at the council meeting that he will oppose rezoning because "it's a bad project."
But without naming names, the alderman, who is Jewish, predicted that "they are going to go back to the community and say, `That dirty Jew. That dirty Jew is trying to destroy our church.' It has been said already."
"We are deeply saddened that Ald. Natarus would make such a false and hurtful accusation," Grisko said. "The Fourth Presbyterian Church is proud of the strong relationship that has been forged with its Jewish neighbors over many years."