Image: Park 51 Islamic Center
SOMA Architects via AP
This artist rendering provided by SOMA Architects shows an interior view of the proposed Park51 community center and mosque, two blocks from ground zero in New York.
msnbc.com
updated 9/21/2011 8:23:19 PM ET 2011-09-22T00:23:19

An Islamic center that has sparked debate over cultural sensitivity for its proximity to the World Trade Center opened on Wednesday with a photography exhibit of children from more than 170 nations.

"NYChildren" features portraits of kids from 171 countries, all living in New York. It marks the grand opening of Lower Manhattan's Islamic community center and mosque, built by nonprofit group Park51.

"Let’s create a physical space that reminds us to be in touch with something greater than ourselves, the unity in community and love of neighbors," Park51 wrote on its website about the exhibit.

The event corresponds with the United Nations' International Day of Peace. The exhibit is being held at a temporary space at the site; the rest of the building has yet to be renovated.

The backers of the community center and mosque are planning to replace a defunct clothing store two blocks from ground zero with a 13- to 16-story building that would hold athletic facilities, a day care center, art galleries, an auditorium for cultural events, a 9/11 memorial and a prayer space with room for a congregation of about 1,000.

Critics have assailed the project as insensitive, saying it is improper for a Muslim institution to be located so close to the site of an attack by Islamic extremists.

"NYChildren," featuring work by photographer Danny Goldfield, opened at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Developer Sharif El-Gamal told the AP that Park51 is modeled after the Jewish Cultural Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he lives.

"I wanted my daughter to learn how to swim, so I took her to the JCC," said the New Jersey-born Muslim. "And when I walked in, I said, 'Wow. This is great.'"

The project has drawn criticism from opponents who say they don't want a Muslim prayer space near the site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

El-Gamal says the center is open to all faiths and will include a 9/11 memorial. He called opposition to the center part of a "campaign against Muslims."

He said the "biggest mistake" on the project was not involving the families of 9/11 victims from the start, noting that the center's growing board now includes at least one 9/11 family member.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: A child from every country, all in one city

loading photos...
  1. Cindy and Christine from Myanmar

    For the last seven years, photographer Danny Goldfield has been taking pictures of one child from every country on earth who now call New York City home. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waseem from Afghanistan

    The project, his first as a photographer, was part of an effort to "get to know the neighbors and cultures of the people living in New York." (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bonacha from Equatorial-Guinea

    Goldfield was inspired by a Sikh man from Arizona who had lost a brother to a hate crime after 9/11. "He said it was important for him to get out of the house to meet his neighbors because he thought that if the neighbors knew him it would reduce the danger for him and his family," says Goldfield. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Victor from France

    His first set of images landed on the cover of Life Magazine in 2006. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Malik from Trinidad and Tobago

    In a BBC interview, Goldfield says that he learned that what he was capturing "was not so much the ethnicity of child -- or the fact that they were a New Yorker -- but I was capturing a very specific emotion about that person. My hope is that when the photographs are exhibited all together, it represents a spectrum of emotions we all know." (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pantita from Thailand

    Goldfield has not completed his quest to take pictures of children from all 196 countries. He is still looking for 25 kids from countries such as Vatican City and North Korea.

    View the list of remaining countries here. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Basim from Iraq

    Basim's photograph, taken in Brooklyn, was the June 2006 cover of Life. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Sarah from Ireland

    Goldfield has traveled all five of New York City's boroughs to meet the children. He finds them through community groups, immigrant services and places of worship. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toumani from Mali

    At the time this photograph was taken, Toumani was two and a half years old. He had already been performing with professional musicians, and had even been in a recording studio. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Lhachen from Bhutan

    Learn more about the photographer and the project here. Occasional exhibits and sales of books with some of his photos keep the project alive.

    Learn more from nychildren.org (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Sophia from Austria

    Taken in Brooklyn, New York. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Kenneth from Ghana

    Taken in Bronx, New York. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Andreas from Cyprus

    Taken in Queens, New York. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fallou from Senegal

    Taken in Manhattan. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Shahad from Oman

    Taken in Manhattan. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Abdullah from Sudan

    Taken in in Brooklyn, New York. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dennis from Guinea-Bissau

    Taken in Queens, New York. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Mara and Alexandra from Peru

    Photograph of twins Mara and Alexandra, taken in Manhattan. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rhianna from United Kingdom

    Taken in Brooklyn, New York. (Danny Goldfield / NYChildren) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The cover of Danny Goldfield's book.

    Learn more from his Website. () Back to slideshow navigation
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