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Top US Senator Opposes Mosque Near Ground Zero

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The U.S. Senate's top Democrat has spoken out against plans to build a Muslim cultural center and mosque near the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

A spokesman for Harry Reid says the Senate majority leader appreciates that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion.  But he says the senator thinks the mosque should be built someplace else.  Reid is in a close campaign for re-election this November.

President Barack Obama said last week he supports the right of Muslims to build a place of worship and community center on private property in New York City.  But he said he would not comment on the "wisdom" of doing so.

That statement appeared to pull back from the president's comments on the proposed center Friday, when he said (during a White House dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) that the U.S. commitment to religious freedom must be "unshakable."

Republicans have sharply criticized the planned construction of the center.  Senator John Cornyn says it is "unwise" to build a mosque near the site, now known as "Ground Zero," where more than 2,600 Americans were killed.  He described President Obama as "disconnected from the mainstream of America" for what Cornyn said is the president's support of the center's construction.

Republican Representative Peter King, who opposes the center's planned location, accused Mr. Obama of changing his position on the project.  King said the project's sponsors are "pouring salt" into what he called Americans' "raw wound" from the attacks.

Opinion polls (by CNN/Opinion Research) indicate that 68 percent of Americans oppose building a mosque less than one kilometer from the site where al-Qaida hijackers crashed two passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  Many Americans say putting a mosque so close to the site would be disrespectful to those killed.

The prayer room would be part of a $100-million Islamic center featuring a 500-seat auditorium, sports facilities, theater and restaurant, and would be open to all visitors.

Earlier Monday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it would be a "sad day for America" if opponents block plans for the mosque near the site of the terrorist attacks.  The mayor and others who support the building of the center have said it will help bridge divisions between the West and the Muslim world.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.

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