A New York imam and his proposed mosque near ground zero are being demonized by political candidates — mostly Republicans — despite the fact that Islam is already very much a part of the World Trade Center neighborhood. And that Muslims pray inside the Pentagon, too, less than 80 feet from where terrorists attacked.
And that the imam who's being branded an extremist has been valued by both Republican and Democratic administrations as a moderate face of the faith.
Even so, the project stirs complicated emotions, and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a complex figure who defies easy categorization in the American Muslim world.
He's devoted much of his career to working closely with Christians, Jews and secular leaders to advance interfaith understanding. He's scolded his own religion for being in some ways in the "Dark Ages." Yet he's also accused the U.S. of spilling more innocent blood than al-Qaida, the terrorist network that turned the World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon and four hijacked airplanes to apocalyptic rubble.
Many Republicans and some Democrats say the proposed $100 million Islamic cultural center and mosque should be built elsewhere, where there is no possible association with New York's ground zero.
Far more than a local zoning issue, the matter has seized congressional campaigns, put President Barack Obama and his party on the spot — he says Muslims have the right to build the mosque — divided families of the Sept. 11, 2001, victims, caught the attention of Muslims abroad and threatened to blur distinctions between mainstream Islam in the U.S. and its radical elements.
Pentagon chapel hosts Muslims
The Pentagon chapel is part of a memorial to the 184 people killed in 2001 when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the west side of the Pentagon and plowed through three of the building's five office rings.
As part of its massive renovation, the Pentagon opened the nondenominational chapel in November 2002. The chapel hosts a daily prayer group and weekly worship service for Muslims and provides similar services for Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians.
Pentagon officials say that no one in the military or the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has ever protested.
They describe the 80-seat chapel as a peaceful place where some 300 to 400 Pentagon employees come to pray each week.
The goal of the Pentagon chaplain office, which runs the chapel, is to "provide assistance and support for the religious, spiritual and morale needs of all service members and employees," said Army spokesman George Wright.
Perhaps one reason the Pentagon chapel has failed to attract much attention is that it looks more like a conference room than a place of worship with its gray walls and maroon carpet and drapes.
Its stained glass windows, which overlook the Pentagon's outdoor memorial to Sept. 11 victims, depict a soaring eagle and American flag.
There are no obvious religious statues or symbols, except Catholic holy water at the door, a Bible beneath each seat and an unadorned altar up front.
Otherwise, religious accouterments are brought in for various worship services.
Wright said that Muslim employees can gather for a daily prayer service Monday through Thursday, and attend a Friday worship service run by an imam from a local mosque.
Two in-house Army chaplains run the chapel, neither of whom are Muslim. Col. Daniel Minjares is associated with the Church of the Nazarene; his deputy, Lt. Col. Ken Williams, is Southern Baptist.
Wright said the chaplains provide religious services for their denomination but can provide services such as grief and marital counseling to employees of any faith.
Other faiths rely on local temples and churches to lead worship services.
Mosques near WTC site
Much has been made of a proposed mosque at ground zero, but the Islamic center would be established at 45-51 Park Place, just over two blocks from the northern edge of the sprawling, 16-acre World Trade Center site. Its location is roughly half a dozen normal Lower Manhattan blocks from the site of the North Tower, the nearest of the two destroyed in the attacks.
The center's location, in a former Burlington Coat Factory store, is already used by the cleric for worship, drawing a spillover from the imam's former main place for prayers, the al-Farah mosque. That mosque, at 245 West Broadway, is about a dozen blocks north of the World Trade Center grounds.
Another, the Manhattan Mosque, stands five blocks from the northeast corner of the World Trade Center site.
To be sure, the center's association with 9/11 is intentional and its location is no geographic coincidence. The building was damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks and the center's planners say they want the center to stand as a statement against terrorism.