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.