Dispute over planned mosque near World Trade Center site (Feature)
By Chris Melzer Jul 22, 2010, 3:06 GMT
New York - It would be hard to find a religion of the world that is not represented somewhere in New York, which places so much emphasis on tolerance.
But a dispute has erupted over plans to build a mosque in Manhattan near the area known as Ground Zero.
For most Americans that area is hallowed ground - the site of an attack carried out by Islamist terrorists who hijacked two passenger planes on September 11, 2001, and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people.
'We feel that it is a cemetery and sacred ground and the dead should be honoured,' said Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger, in an interview with broadcaster CNN. 'To build a 13-storey mega mosque on the cemetery, on the site of the largest attack in American history, I think, is incredibly insensitive.'
Plans already approved by a Manhattan community board call for a 100-million-dollar religious centre to be built at Park Place, currently the site of a 150-year-old Italian Renaissance-inspired palazzo.
According to the plans, the old building is to be torn down and replaced by an Islamic cultural centre whose developers say would serve as a meeting place for both Christians and Muslims. However, the main structure would be a massive mosque, which opponents are now fighting before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
'A monument to terrorism' is what one opponent called the planned mosque at a commission meeting on July 13. The woman said she felt it would be a 'terrible mistake' to destroy the old building in order to make room for the mosque.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has to decide whether the old building should be designated historically significant, which would complicate plans to alter or tear it down and develop the site for different purposes. The commission is expected to vote later this summer on whether the building meets the standards.
Normally the commission's meetings are sober events. But last week's hearing took on an angry tone as Muslims and non-Muslims expressed their frustrations.
'Maybe if a mosque were built you guys would know what Islam is about,' said Dania Darwish, a woman wearing a head scarf whose brother, a fireman, died when the twin towers collapsed. 'My family died that day and all your people here yelling at me don't even know that.'
Rafiq Kathwari, a New Yorker who described himself as a moderate Muslim with Arab roots, said he was 'ashamed to be an American today,' waving his US passport over his head. 'This has been made by a very vocal minority into an issue of bigotry.'
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio also spoke at the hearing, saying he supported giving the existing building landmark status in part because of its history and architectural significance.
Lazio said the building warranted landmark designation because on September 11, 2001, it was struck by debris from the terror attacks, and that connection made it 'a place of deep historical significance and a reminder of just what happened on New York's darkest day,' according to the Washington Post.
Milder statements have come from relatives of people who lost their lives in the attacks.
'People are being accused of being anti-Muslim and racist, but this is simply a matter of sensitivity,' Sally Regenhard told the New York Times. Her son, a fireman, died in the towers and she still has difficulty going to the site. 'It's hard enough to go down to that pit of hell and death.'
Representatives of the Muslim community and New York City's mayor have defended the proposed development.
'We're saying Muslims have a legitimate role to play in the social fabric of this country,' said Ibrahim Ramey of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation on CNN.
Sharif El-Gamal, developer of the planned complex and head of the company that owns the property, has blamed the media for fanning the flames to create the controversy.
'There is such an ignorance about Islam,' he said. 'This is the voice of the moderate Muslim.'
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose office is only a few minutes away from Park Place, has said the city would never tell people how or where they should pray. 'Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness, and I think it's a great message to the world.
'I think our young men and women overseas are fighting for exactly this. For the right of people to practice their religion and for government to not pick and choose which religions they support and which religions they don't.'