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Flushing, Just Outside Manhattan, is Proud of Its Religious Diversity

The neighborhood of Flushing in New York City borough of Queens, just outside Manhattan, has been a model for religious freedom since the 1600s. Back then, members of The Society of Friends, or Quakers, began arriving in what was then a Dutch colony, fleeing religious persecution in England.

The colony's director-general barred the Friends from practicing their religion. In protest, the citizens of Flushing wrote a document called The Flushing Remonstrance. The document pleaded with the governor to grant the Quakers the right to worship. Eventually, they succeeded, and today Flushing is home to more than 200 places of Worship. VOA's Paige Kollock reports.

Hinduism is just one of many religions practiced in Flushing. One reason the Hindu Temple Society of North America chose this neighborhood is because of its large immigrant population.

It includes Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Mexicans, African-Americans, Greeks and others.

Flushing's many different houses of worship reflect the area's diversity and generate local pride.

Flushing resident John Liu was born in Taiwan. He was the first Asian American elected to the New York City Council. "We have Quakers, we have descendants of Huguenots, we have Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims. Every religion under the sun I think you can find in downtown Flushing," Liu said.

When Quakers were ostracized in the 17th century, a man named John Bowne donated his house for their meetings. Bowne and other Flushing residents wrote a document called The Flushing Remonstrance, which argued that the Quakers should have the right to worship.

Bowne was jailed. He was eventually freed, and a Quaker Meeting House was built.

Joan Kindler is a long-standing member of this "Friends Meeting House." It is more than 300 years old, the oldest house of worship in New York State.

"Scholars have long linked the Remonstrance as sort of being like the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing religious freedom," Kindler said.

Other religious groups came to Flushing after the Quakers. Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the city of Philadelphia in 1787 to escape racism in the Methodist Church.

Katherine Williams is Executive Secretary of the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church now affiliated with Allen's AME Church. "All the African-Americans would have to sit in the balcony," Williams said. "And one day they came down to the altar and they were kneeling at the altar, and the parishioners told them that they had to move, and they said: 'Ok, just give us a minute and we'll never come back here again.' And that's when he went to the blacksmith's shop and started the African Methodist Episcopal Church."

This is the neighborhood's first African-American congregation. Flushing's ethnic makeup may change, but church members like Williams are as rooted as the pews they pray on.

And she says they also committed to respect for others and their religious beliefs.

"As long as they don't bother me, I don't bother them," Williams said. "If I'm ever invited to go to one of their churches, or one of their services, I don't have a problem with it, and they don't have a problem coming here. You don't make people un-believe and you don't tell them, you know, my religion is better than yours."

Down the road, at The Muslim Center of New York, Imam Mohammad Sherwani says Muslims worldwide have an unfair reputation for violence. In Flushing, he says, Muslims are treated with respect. "People are very nice, people are educated: Muslims, Christians, Jewish both, all they are living together, peacefully, harmoniously, in cooperation, love," Imam Sherwani said.

Councilman Liu says harmony does not always come easily. The community works at it.

"Do we have problems? Sure, of course," Liu said. "There are always rivalries between ethnic groups. There's competition for space and resources among religious groups, but, all in all, we get together very well here in Flushing, and that's the legacy that they left us 350 years ago."

It is a legacy that may be tested as the population grows and space shrinks, but a legacy that people in Flushing say is as important to them as their faith.