Image: Site of proposed Muslim center
Brendan Mcdermid  /  Reuters
A vacant building stands in Manhattan where the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center has been proposed.
NBC News and news services
updated 8/18/2010 9:10:35 PM ET 2010-08-19T01:10:35

With the controversy still swirling over plans for a Muslim community center near the former World Trade Center, President Obama said Wednesday that he had "no regrets" about his involvement in the debate.

Answering a reporter's question at a political event in Columbus, Ohio, the president initially paused, then turned to a TV camera and said, "The answer is — no regrets."

Obama entered the fray Friday, saying he supported the right of Muslims to build there. Amid political backlash a day later, the president said he was commenting on religious freedom, not the exact location of the mosque .

With Republicans trying to wrest control of Congress from Obama's Democrats, and facing a tough re-election battle of his own, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid broke with the president over the issue Monday , saying the mosque should be built elsewhere.

New York Gov. David Paterson noted Thursday that there were no federal, state or local laws that would prevent the mosque from being built near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. But he said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he was sensitive to the concerns of a community traumatized by the attacks and still struggling to rebuild.

Asked if he thought the site of the Muslim center should be moved, Paterson said, "I think that might be a way to suit the needs of the community" near the trade center site.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean also chimed in on the issue.

Pelosi called for "looking into how is this opposition to the mosque (is) being funded."On Wednesday, her office sent the Washington Post a statement adding that she also supports "transparency about who is funding the effort to build this Islamic center."

But Dean, a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, said in comments on New York City talk radio station WABC that

“another site would be a better idea.”

“There has to be a compromise here," he said "We have to understand that it is a real affront to people who lost their lives [on 9/11], including Muslims.”

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Vote: OK to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero?

Many Republicans have called the proposal an affront to the memory of those killed in the 2001 attacks, although a few have warned their colleagues not to turn the issue into a political football.

Ted Olson, a Republican who was solicitor general under the Bush administration, on Wednesday voiced support for Obama's position. Olson's wife, Barbara Olson, was a passenger aboard the plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon in the 9/11 attacks.

"Well it may not make me popular with some people, but I think probably the president was right about this," Olson said on "Andrea Mitchell Reports."

"I do believe that people of all religions have a right to build edifices, or structures, or places of religious worship or study, where the community allows them to do it under zoning laws and that sort of thing. And that we dont' want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don't think it should a political issue," he said.

The planned $100 million center would be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site, where nearly 2,800 people died when Islamic extremists flew jets into the twin towers. The project is headed by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, a Muslim cleric who has worked to improve relations between Islam and the West.

The State Department said Wednesday that American taxpayers will pay the imam $3,000 in fees for a three-nation outreach trip to the Middle East that will cost roughly $16,000.

The department said Rauf will get a daily $200 honorarium for the 15-day tour to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which is intended to promote religious tolerance.

Airfare is included, as well as the standard federal government per diem for expenses and lodging in each of the cities he will visit, spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Those per diem rates range from nearly $400 to nearly $500, according to official documents.

Rauf starts his tour Thursday in Bahrain and ends it in the United Arab Emirates Sept. 2. At each stop he is expected to discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance. He will not be allowed to raise funds for the mosque on the trip, Crowley said.

"We have had conversations with the imam to make sure he understands that during these kinds of trips, he's not to engage in any personal business," Crowley told reporters. "He understands that completely."

"We value his participation as a religious figure here in the United States who can help people overseas understand the role that religion plays in our society," he said.

Crowley said this will be Rauf's fourth U.S.-government sponsored trip under a program run by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.

Crowley said Rauf had traveled twice to the Middle East in 2007 during the Bush administration and once earlier this year. 

Opposition in New York
A poll released Wednesday showed that a majority of New York state voters remain opposed and indicated the issue will be a factor for many in November elections.

The Siena College poll showed 63 percent of the state's voters surveyed oppose the project, with 27 percent supporting it. That compares with 64 percent opposed and 28 percent in favor two weeks earlier, results that are within the polls' sampling margins.

Newsweek: Mosque 'nowhere near' Ground Zero

A CNN/Opinion Research poll released last week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan, while 29 percent approved.

In a new question, the latest Siena poll found that many in the state believe the project is protected by the Constitution, even if they oppose the plan.

Nearly two-thirds of voters, 64 percent, say the developers have a constitutional right to build the mosque. Twenty-eight percent say they do not.

Among those who oppose building the mosque, about half agree that developers have the constitutional right to build it. Twenty-eight percent of mosque opponents say they do not have that right.

Nearly a quarter of voters questioned said the issue will have a major effect on which candidate for governor they support. Thirty-seven percent say it will have some effect, while about 40 percent of voters say it won't matter.

The state at large is more conservative than heavily Democratic New York City.

The poll showed Republican Carl Paladino, who has taken the hardest line against the project among the candidates, is continuing to gain on Rick Lazio heading into the Sept. 14 Republican primary and also gaining on Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Still, Cuomo continues to have twice the support of either Lazio or Paladino.

Of those who see the issue as a major factor in their vote, almost all — 92 percent — oppose building the mosque near the attack site referred to as "ground zero." Cuomo has only a narrow lead over Lazio among those voters.

Cuomo has defended the project, saying it is protected by the Constitution. Lazio wants an investigation into who will fund the $100 million project. Paladino said it is akin to a Japanese war memorial at Pearl Harbor, the site of the 1941 attack that brought the United States into World War II.

The telephone poll questioned 788 registered New York state voters Aug. 9 through Monday. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

New York Gov. David Paterson plans to meet soon with the project's developers about possibly moving the mosque and cultural center.

Paterson last week offered his help and the possibility that state land could be provided as an alternate site for the center.

Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said talks were under way between the governor's office and representatives of Park51 to set up a meeting between Paterson and the project's leaders.

"We are working with the developers on a staff level, but there have not been any formal discussions between the governor and imam or developer," Hook said Tuesday. "We expect to have a meeting scheduled in the near future."

Mosque spokesman Oz Sultan released a statement Tuesday saying he did not believe a meeting had been scheduled.

"We appreciate the governor's interest as we continue to have conversations with many officials," Sultan said.

When project developer Sharif El-Gamal was asked by a local news station if he planned to consider moving the project, he was adamant he would not: "Not at all," he told NY1 on Tuesday.

He added that the World Trade Center site is not even visible from the building where the center would be.

"In New York City, two blocks is a great distance," he said, adding that some buildings in the city have their own zip codes. "We are nowhere near the World Trade Center site."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Vote: Do you think a mosque should be allowed to be built two blocks from ground zero?

Video: Giuliani: ‘Don’t build the mosque there’

  1. Closed captioning of: Giuliani: ‘Don’t build the mosque there’

    >> raging over those plans to build a mosque near ground zero . the current mayor of new york city , michael bloomberg , has been one of the most vocal proponents of that mosque. but former mayor rudolph giuliani has a different opinion. mr. mayor, good morning. it's nice to see you.

    >> good morning.

    >> what's your problem with it? most people say, look, it's legal, it's within the constitution. we protect religious freedom in this country. why don't you think it should be built there?

    >> i agree with all that. and beyond that it's an act of right project as far as i can tell under new york law. they never even had to go through all the reviews they went through. the question here is a question of sensitivity. people's feelings. and, are you really what you pretend to be? as i understand this cordoba house, the idea of it is to healing, to show that muslims care about the same things that christians and jews do. that we're one people. that we should be one. well, if you're going to so horribly offend the people who are most directly offended by this, most directly affected by this, the families of the september 11th victims, who i happen to know and have got ton know, you know, really well, then how are you healing? i mean all this is doing is creating more division, more anger, more hatred, and i mean, there are --

    >> are you worried about the imam behind this project ? in terms of his politics, his religious beliefs , do you find him to be anything but the moderate that he's described as by the current administration? and by the way, the bush administration before that?

    >> i'm confused by the imam. i see all the things that you're saying. but i also see a man who said that america was an accessory to september 11th . those are the very words that require me to give $10 million back to an arab chic or prince. he gave us $10 million for the 9/11 --

    >> let me clarify so people understand what you're saying. shortly after 9/11 on "60 minutes" he said, quote, i wouldn't say the united states deserved what happened, but united states policies were an accessory to the crime that happened on 9/11, because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world.

    >> well, that's exactly what the the -- what the arab prince said when he gave me $10 million. that america was an accessory to september 11th because of its foreign policy . america was not an accessory to september 11th . all you've got to do is read about jihad and -- second thing, the second thing he said was, he refused to condemn hamas, with whom he is alleged to have had some ties. a terrorist group . it's recognized by everyone as a terrorist group . and he said america should apologize. so, okay, that's one part of it. the other part of the it is, he has had a history of appearing to be a hero, appearing to be someone that wants to talk about a moderate islam .

    >> he's made appearances with condoleezza rice --

    >> there are two ways you could interpret the koran. the better way, which is the peaceful way, or the warrior way, which is the way in which you get into trouble with jihad. but those quotes trouble me. but here's what troubles me more. if he's truly about healing, he will not go forward with this project . because this project is not healing. this project is divisive. this project is creating tremendous pain to people who have already paid the ultimate sacrifice.

    >> there are a lot of issues are divisive, and yet they have to be tough choices --

    >> matt, matt, but not this. that's true. a lot of issues are divisive. but if you want to claim to be the healer, then you're not on the side of the person who is pushing those issues.

    >> let me play you something you said on our program, "meet the press" back on december 22nd of 2002 . so about 14 months after 9/11.

    >> if you think about the attacks on september 11th , i think everyone will acknowledge that part of the core of that attack was the fact that we have freedom of religion in america . that -- that part of why america was founded. it's part of what we're all about. it's one of the most prominent things about us, that you can be a catholic, a protestant, a jew, a muslim, or no religion at all, and no one's going to interfere with you.

    >> and no one's going to interfere with you. by saying that these people shouldn't build their mosque where they plan to build it, isn't that interfering?

    >> no, of course not. first of all, they have freedom of religion . they can build it. they have every right to build it. the question is, should they build it? are they displaying the sensitivity they claim by building it? for example, the pope asked the nuns to take the convent back from right in front of auschwitz or one of the concentration camps. they had a perfect right to be there. they had the freedom of religion there. the nuns were sensitive enough to the concerns of jews that they pulled it back. now here's a man who is selling sensitivity. he's got $180,000 in the bank, he wants to raise $100 million. ask me how he's going to do it, i don't know. you don't do it by creating this kind of vicious, sort of angry battle that's going on. the people who are speaking about it --

    >> some would say he didn't create the vicious, angry battle. that it's the people who decided to weigh in on it who added it to the battle?

    >> i was the first person on september 11th that stepped forward in the heat of battle, that afternoon, my first press conference and said, no group blamed. do not blame arabs. we have to understand this is a small group , and we have to focus on them. but, the reality is, that right now, if you are a healer, you do not go forward with this project .

    >> a couple of real quick --

    >> if you're a warrior you do.

    >> a couple of quick things. do you think union workers in this city, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, will build on that site?

    >> before i returned to new york last night on an airplane, i was talking to a couple construction workers there. they told me, typical new york accent. we ain't working on that project . let them see if they can go find somebody to work on that project . my answer is, i know new york well enough, you're going to probably find somebody to work on it. i question whether they can raise the money. every indication from the attorney general's report of their charity is they have about $180,000. $100 million project . where is the money coming from?

    >> in your gut do you think if we sit down a year from right now the project will be under construction at this site?

    >> i think governor paterson had an approach. nice compromise, find another place, have a beautiful mosque there. don't offend easily 80%, 90% of the families are seriously offended. i know people who are crying over this who have lost loved ones. you or i might not even agree. we might say, okay, put the mosque there. but maybe we haven't lost that -- that son, that father, person who is watching their child today, and still remember every day that person is gone. it wasn't an attack in the name of islam . it was a perverted kind of islam . but the kind of prevalent view that goes on in a lot of parts of the world. we've got to be sensitive to everybody here.

    >> rudy giuliani , good to have you here.

    >> good to see you.

Interactive: Proposed mosque spurs controversy