The planned mosque and Islamic center blocks from the World Trade Center site got a new boost Wednesday from a coalition of supporters that includes families of Sept. 11, 2001, victims.
New York Neighbors for American Values rallied for the first time at a municipal building near the World Trade Center site.
"I lost a 23-year-old son, a paramedic who gave his life saving Americans and their values," Talat Hamdani said, and supporting the Islamic center and mosque "has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with standing up for our human rights, including freedom of religion."
Among the nearly 2,800 people killed when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001 were more than 30 Muslims, she noted.
Opponents of the Islamic center project argue it's insensitive to the families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close. Supporters cite freedom of religion.
The new coalition was started by members of 40 civic and religious organizations that "spontaneously called each other, because we had the feeling that something very negative was happening," said Susan Lerner, executive director of the New York office of the watchdog group Common Cause.
The controversy was triggered by "irresponsible politicians" using it as an election issue, she said. Names mentioned at the rally included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Gingrich has suggested that building the mosque near the World Trade Center site is akin to putting a Nazi sign "next to the Holocaust Museum." Reid has broken ranks with President Barack Obama by saying he thinks the mosque should be built elsewhere.
Coalition members are now contacting officials, asking them to support the project as a reflection of religious freedom and diversity, and the rejection of "crude stereotypes meant to frighten and divide us."
They plan a candlelight vigil on Sept. 10, the eve of the ninth Sept. 11 anniversary.
"This is not just about Muslims; this is about who we are as Americans," said Lerner, adding that to oppose the Islamic center is "a slippery slope. There will always be people who are offended standing next to people who are different from others."
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of New York's Shalom Center, said the project will show the world a form of Islam that espouses peace — not the Islam of the terrorists.
"It is right; it is wise to build it," he told hundreds of people gathered under the arches of Manhattan's Municipal Building, a short walk from the World Trade Center site.
Several coalition members noted that the mosque site's developer, Sharif el-Gamal, modeled it after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It serves anyone who wishes to participate, they said, and so will the Muslim center.
On Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an impassioned speech at an event marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, saying that not allowing a proposed mosque to be built near ground zero would be "compromising our commitment to fighting terror with freedom."
"We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting," Bloomberg said at the dinner in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan.
The mayor said he understood the "impulse to find another location for the mosque" but a compromise won't end the debate.
"The question will then become how big should the no-mosque zone around the World Trade Center be," Bloomberg said. "There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved?"
Meanwhile, the heated rhetoric surrounding the proposal for an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero drew concern from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who said Tuesday the tense climate could put New Yorkers in danger of losing their sense of tolerance and unity, values they embraced in the days after Sept. 11.
"We're just a little bit apprehensive that those noble values may be a bit at risk in the way this conversation and debate about the site of the mosque is taking place," Dolan, the leader of the area's Roman Catholics, said after a meeting with Gov. David Paterson about the issue.
A national survey underscored the complex views of Americans toward the mosque project, with 51 percent agreeing with opponents of the Muslim center, while 34 percent said they supported it. The poll of 1,003 randomly chosen adults was conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and showed that a majority, 62 percent, also said Muslims have equal rights to build houses of worship.
While supporters of the mosque say religious freedom should be protected, opponents say the mosque should be moved farther away from where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dolan said both sides of the debate have legitimate stances.
"I sure don't have strong feelings on where the mosque should ultimately be," he said during a brief news conference after meeting with the governor.
New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents the lower Manhattan district where ground zero is, suggested Tuesday that Islamic leaders should move the proposed mosque. Paterson has made the same point.
Organizers have the right to build the center at a building two blocks north of ground zero but should be open to compromise, Silver said.
"In the spirit of living with others, they should be cognizant of the feelings of others and try to find a location that doesn't engender the deep feelings the currently exist about this site," Silver said.
Paterson has yet to meet with anyone from The Cordoba Initiative, the project's organizer.
Its co-founder, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is on a Mideast trip funded by the U.S. Department of state. He alluded to the controversy at a dinner Sunday night for student leaders at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Manama, Bahrain.
"The fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success," he said. "It is my hope that people will understand more. ... This is something we are doing for your generation."
Rauf also thanked President Barack Obama, who has said Muslims have the right to practice their religion and build the Islamic center in lower Manhattan. The president later said he wasn't endorsing the specifics of the plan.
The White House said Tuesday that Obama would have no further comment on the issue and that the administration will not get involved in talks about relocating the facility. Republicans have vowed to make Obama's supportive comments a campaign issue in this fall's midterm elections.