By Chris Hawley
NEW YORK — Christian ministers and Muslim leaders said Thursday they're joining to oppose police surveillance of ethnic groups in New York City.
The Faith and Freedom Alliance includes Protestant pastors from mostly black congregations in New York, some of them veteran activists who were put under police surveillance during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The group had its first meeting on Thursday at a church in Harlem.
A series of stories by The Associated Press revealed a secret program by the New York Police Department to infiltrate Muslim groups, eavesdrop on people in public places and document where ethnic groups eat, pray and even shop for groceries.
"There's a lot of intimidation going on, a lot of unhealthy suspicion," said John Scott, a member of the Baptist Ministers Conference of New York City.
The meeting came just days after an Islamic center, a home used as a Hindu temple, and two other sites in Queens were hit by Molotov cocktails. No one was injured in the attacks.
Prosecutors have charged a black Guyanese immigrant, Ray Lazier Lengend, with one count of arson as a hate crime and three counts of arson in the New Year's Day attacks. He remained under psychiatric evaluation Thursday at Bellevue Hospital Medical Center.
Religious leaders said they were worried that the police surveillance program feeds an environment of distrust between ethnic groups. Scott likened it to FBI infiltration of black activist groups during the civil rights era.
"All of our phones were tapped. They had plants in all of our meetings," Scott said. "When you begin to stereotype and stigmatize a particular group like that, you give those violent elements legitimacy — almost like they're doing America a favor."
Muslim leaders have been holding protests and ramping up "know your rights" training for community groups in the wake of the AP series.
On Nov. 18, hundreds of protesters marched and prayed near police headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
On Dec. 30, 15 Muslim leaders boycotted Mayor Michael Bloomberg's annual interfaith breakfast, traditionally a showcase for the city's diversity. Dozens of Christian, Jewish and community activists signed a letter supporting the boycott. Hundreds of other religious leaders still attended the breakfast.
Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said police have done nothing illegal and are simply following leads in their efforts to thwart terrorists. But Jacques DeGraff, associate pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church, said police are infringing on people's privacy and right to worship.
"The police department has an accountability issue," DeGraff said. "Faith says we are called to a higher standard, and we can respond to security threats without violating rights."
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press