Ground Zero mosque overshadows 9/11 anniversary
New York: The mosque project two blocks from the World Trade Center is too close for comfort for some who will attend Saturday's memorials for those killed in the Sep 11, 2001, Islamist terrorist attacks against the city.
The somber annual rite at Ground Zero for the 2,752 people killed in the destruction of the landmark 110-storey twin towers will bring together government officials and families of the victims, as it does every year.
But unlike past years, when the city was unified while heading into the annual commemoration, this year it is not.
Since concrete plans for an Islamic cultural centre and mosque near the attack site were announced in July, New Yorkers and their fellow Americans have been engaged in vitriolic debate that pits religious freedom against the need for sensitivity for the families of the dead.
The escalating opposition to the plans is blamed for a growing number of attacks on Muslims and their mosques: Arson is suspected at a mosque building site in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; a Muslim New York City taxi driver was stabbed by a passenger who asked him his religion.
Interfaith groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims are urging the media to downplay plans by a very small church in Florida - the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville - to burn Qurans on the 9/11 anniversary.
In fact, a New York mosque has existed peacefully just four blocks from Ground Zero, long before the terrorist attacks. And Muslims have been praying at a makeshift mosque at the site of the planned cultural centre since last year.
The proposed centre - envisioned to also include a gym - would be only two blocks away from the attack site, on Park Place, an undistinguished street in Lower Manhattan with regular bars, banks, shops and small hotels. It would replace a clothing factory that was damaged in the terrorist attacks.
Mosque defenders now camp daily in front of 45-47 Park Place, holding cardboards demanding freedom of religion. Imams from other mosques in New York have joined mosque defenders in demonstrating their support.
Even some families of 9/11 victims have joined demonstrations to support the right of the mosque planners to build on Park Place.
Mosque opponents hold regular protests across the street, but no violence has been reported.
Over the weekend, one opponent displayed a huge caricature of "Imam Obama" dressed in robe and headscarf and holding a Quran - a direct play on growing belief that US President Barack Obama is Muslim because of his name, his Kenyan father's religion and his defence of the right of New Yorkers to build a new mosque.
Pollsters have been busy tracking the mood over the controversy. Most of those polled seemed to agree that the constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
But from there, opinions diverge. The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that 71 percent of New Yorkers believed the Islamic centre should be built "somewhere else". A similar majority favoured an investigation into the source of the $100 million being raised by the Cordoba Institute to build the centre.
Across the country, 61 percent oppose the New York mosque plans while 26 percent favour them, Time magazine found. At the same time, 55 percent said they would favour a mosque in their own neighbourhood and only 34 percent opposed.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Jewish multi-billionaire, former Wall Street financier and creator of Bloomberg Financial News, is the mosque's most outspoken defender, appearing in public and praying with the mosque's imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf.
"This is plain and simple people trying to stir things up to get publicity and trying to polarize people so they can get some votes," said Bloomberg, who believes the vitriol will fade after November elections.
Outspoken mosque opponents include Republicans Sarah Palin of Alaska and Newt Gingrich of Georgia; Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York governor; and other far-afield Republican candidates like some on Long Island.
But even within the more liberal Democratic Party, New York Governor David Paterson has tried to defuse the dispute, offering state-owned sites instead. Sheldon Silver, the powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly, wants the planners to accept the offer because of the "kind of turmoil that's been created".
Richard Hass, president of New York's Council on Foreign Relations, warns that the mosque dispute is feeding anti-American feelings in Muslim countries and could hurt US diplomatic efforts for peace in the Middle East.
While the wisdom of a Ground Zero mosque is being debated, the mosque developer, Sharif el Gamal, has undergone scrutiny as a light weight in New York's construction industry with little money. Gamal, who bought the property for $4.85 million, has compared the mosque project to Christian YMCAs and Jewish community centres.
But neither of those institutions provide a place of worship.