Tue, Aug 24, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Protesters faceoff in New York

CONFRONTATION The proposed mosque near ground zero where more than 2,700 were killed has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and US values


The proposed mosque near ground zero drew hundreds of fever-pitch demonstrators, with opponents carrying signs associating Islam with blood, supporters shouting: “Say no to racist fear” and US flags waving on both sides.

Opponents demand that the mosque be moved away from the site where more than 2,700 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

The two leaders of the construction project, meanwhile, defended their plans, though one suggested on Sunday that organizers might eventually be willing to discuss an alternative site.

The other, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said during a Middle East trip that the attention generated by the project is actually positive and that he hopes it will bring greater understanding.

Around the corner from the cordoned-off old building that is to become a 13-story Islamic community center and mosque, police separated the two groups of demonstrators. There were no reports of physical clashes, but there were some nose-to-nose confrontations.

Opponents of the project two blocks from the World Trade Center site appeared to outnumber supporters. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA blared over loudspeakers as mosque opponents chanted: “No mosque, no way.”

Signs hoisted by dozens of protesters standing behind police barricades read “SHARIA” — using dripping, blood-red letters to describe Islam’s Shariah law, which governs the behavior of Muslims.

Steve Ayling, a 40-year-old Brooklyn plumber, said the people behind the mosque project were “the same people who took down the twin towers.”

“They should put it in the Middle East,” Ayling said.

On a nearby sidewalk, police chased away a group that unfurled a banner with images of beating, stoning and other torture they said was committed by those who followed Islamic law.

A mannequin dressed in a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, was mounted on one of two mock missiles that were part of an anti-mosque installation. One missile was inscribed with the words: “Again? Freedom Targeted by Religion,” the other with “Obama: With a middle name Hussein. We understand. Bloomberg: What is your excuse?”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has fiercely defended plans for the proposed mosque, saying that the right “to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded.”

The mosque project is being led by Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, who insist the center will promote moderate Islam. The dispute has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and US values.

Republicans have been critical of US President Barack Obama’s stance: He has said Muslims have the right to build the center at the site, but has not commented on whether he thinks they should.

Rauf is in the middle of a Middle East trip funded by the US State Department that is intended to promote religious tolerance. He told a gathering on Sunday at the US ambassador’s residence in Bahrain that he took heart from the dispute over the mosque, saying “the fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success ... It is my hope that people will understand more.”

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