In the latest chapter of an emotionally charged battle, a New York City agency has cleared the way for an Islamic center to be built near the former World Trade Center site. The area in downtown New York has been known as ground zero since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 destroyed the twin towers that once stood there.
In the vote Tuesday, New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark status to the 19th century building that now occupies the site of the proposed 13-story, $100-million Islamic center. Commissioners ruled that the building, which is not within view of ground zero, lacks distinctive architectural or historic value.
Several audience members reacted angrily to the ruling.
"Shame on you! Shame on you," shouted Pamela Geller.
Pamela Geller is a leader of a group that opposes the center and includes family members of victims who died in the terrorist attack in 2001. Geller and other opponents say the center, which would include a mosque, would insult the memory of the victims of the September 11 attacks.
"It's caused an enormous amount of pain to the 9/11 families and Americans, because the 9/11 families took the hit for us," she said. "And so if that was the objective, healing, and it's done the opposite. Why not withdraw the mosque and just build a community center?"
Supporters say the center will be open to all New Yorkers. And another group of 9/11 families issued a statement in support of it. Daisy Khan, one of the leaders of the organization seeking to build the center, says it will demonstrate what Islam is really about.
"We really stand for peace, and peace is what matters the most, and we believe the symbolism of being close to the site that had so much tragedy animating from it is the very site that we believe will bring about much healing," said Daisy Khan.
Members of a liberal Jewish group called Jay Street agree. Isaac Luria is their spokesman:
"The Muslim community in New York has rights just as much as everyone else does," said Isaac Luria. "And as American Jews we believe that our heritage informs us that it's important to stand up strong when religious freedom of others is threatened."
Later in the day, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has strongly supported the center, made a statement about the decision, flanked by religious leaders of different faiths.
"It is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam," said Michael Bloomberg. Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith."
The Islamic center's founders say they will install a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the building, and the center's board will include non-Muslims. Construction must wait until funds to build the center are raised.