In a controversy that is sweeping the country, many Americans oppose a plan to build an Islamic Center just two blocks from the site where al Qaeda terrorists toppled the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. Supporters, however, say Muslims have a constitutional right to build the structure, which would replace a building that previously housed a clothing store.
Park Place in New York is two blocks north of where the World Trade Center once marked the city skyline -- a spot now sometimes referred to as "Ground Zero." A group of American Sufi Muslims has purchased property on that street to build an Islamic Center, complete with an auditorium, swimming pool and mosque.
"Hey, hey, ho, ho, the mosque's gotta go," shouted one critic, who declined an on camera interview. But he warned passersby their loved ones could be killed in another Muslim terrorist attack on America. Some opponents disparage the proposed Center as the "Ground Zero Mosque."
Artist Rita Balmina, an immigrant from Odessa, Ukraine, says she was on Park Place on 9/11 and believes the attacks that day were carried out under the banner of Islam. Balmina recognizes that Muslims have a right to build mosques anywhere in the United States … but she says, not so close to what many Americans consider to be hallowed ground.
"I fear that a mosque built on this site will become a symbol of the people who carried out the attacks, though I hesitate to call them people. And those who would come to worship here could be sympathizers of their extremist views," she said.
One New Yorker booms out verses from the Koran in a show of support for the mosque. He also defends the constitutional right of Americans to pray in peace wherever they wish.
The critic is quick to respond: "I'd like to read them their last rites!"
Supporter Matt Sky, a free-lance web developer, says the emotions of 9/11 and the Islamic Center's proximity to Ground Zero represent a challenge to American principles. "I sympathize as everyone with those who died, but it doesn't mean we should be destroying the values of our country. When we send soldiers off to die, they're supposed to be fighting for our freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of the press and speech. People who want to take this [center] down are basically going against freedom of religion," he said.
A majority of the people who live in the neighborhood around Ground Zero support the Islamic Center, though most Americans are against it. But a recent public opinion poll in the state of New York indicates most opponents recognize the Islamic Center project is protected by the Constitution, even if they oppose the plan itself.