New York: A plan to build a mosque and Islamic centre next to Ground Zero, sparking a national debate on religious tolerance, won a crucial battle in New York.
The city`s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously not to declare the building now occupying the site protected, thereby clearing the way for it to be torn down and the mosque to be built.
The project has become a test of tolerance for Islam in post-9/11 America and spawned a national debate on freedom of religion.
Meant to include a mosque, sports facilities, theatre, restaurant and possibly day care, the multi-story Islamic centre would be open to all visitors to demonstrate that Muslims are part of their community, planners say.
But the proposed location, two blocks from the gaping Ground Zero hole, where the Twin Towers were destroyed by al Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, has touched raw nerves.
Applause erupted when the commission recorded its 9-0 vote against protecting the 1850s structure, which houses an abandoned clothing store.
But others shouted "shame". One protestor held a placard saying: "Don`t glorify murders of 3,000, no 9/11 mosque" and "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests".
"This is a disgrace," said Andy Sullivan of Queens. "They were screaming Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) when the planes were hitting these buildings. Remember, we still have two wars going on."
Supporters say the project would build a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, transforming both the drab lower Manhattan street and the way Americans have looked on Muslims since the deadly attacks in 2001.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said religious liberty, a key US value, was at stake.
"This is the freest city in the world. That`s what makes New York special and different and strong. Our doors are open to everyone -- everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules," Bloomberg said.
Critics appear to be small in number, but passionate, and they have gained powerful supporters recently.
Sarah Palin, the former Republican nominee for vice president and a possible presidential candidate in 2012, last month told Americans to "refudiate" the project.
Another figure from the Republican right, Newt Gingrich, has attacked the mosque idea, as has the maverick Tea Party movement.
The opposition, which began with relatives of people killed on 9/11, has become increasingly politicized -- and sometimes ugly.
Two US television networks said they were refusing to air a slick ad called "Kill the Ground Zero Mosque," in which a voice over declares: "On 9/11 they declared war against us... That mosque is a monument to their victory and an invitation to more."
More surprising to many was opposition from the Anti-Defamation League, which is the leading US organisation devoted to fighting anti-Semitism.
It said it rejected the "bigotry" of some opponents but argued there are "strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Centre site" and that the project "will cause some victims more pain, unnecessarily".
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative, which is leading the project, said after Tuesday`s vote that the facility "will be a home for all people who are yearning for understanding and healing, peace, collaboration, and interdependence.
"We are more determined than ever to take this opportunity, which we also see as a responsibility to our community and to our neighbours in Lower Manhattan," he added.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the proposal was a test for religious freedom and urged the city panel to "reject efforts by Islamophobes" to block the project.