Islamic center near Ground Zero stirs up emotional debate

The ongoing debate over the construction of a proposed Islamic community center and mosque near the site of Ground Zero continues as the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the anniversary of 9/11 coincide.

Throughout the summer, the debate over the Park51 project has drawn the attention of local political, civic and religious leaders and generated discussions throughout the tri-state area.

The proposed Park51 structure will be home to a community center focused on promoting understanding and tolerance through the arts, culture and education. According to the project’s website, all New Yorkers are welcome to use the facility, which will also host a small mosque in a yet-to-be determined location.

Former mayor Rudy Giuliani came out against the center and mosque in August while speaking with Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show. He said that if the developer, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was legitimately concerned about helping the city’s healing process, “he [would] not got forward with this project. This project is not healing.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, believes that building the community center will be beneficial for the city. He fiercely defended the Muslim community’s right to build from the start of the debate back several months ago.

At a dinner honoring Ramadan at Gracie, Bloomberg advocated the importance of protecting the rights of all Americans, regardless of their beliefs.

“If we say that a mosque or a community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom,” he said.

Relatives of the victims of the 9/11 tragedies have also spoken out, many in opposition to the project. On August 26, 9/11 families and others rallied in support of the center, some in favor of the construction, others not.

Local politicians, including Rep. Peter King and former Rep. Vito Fossella, as well as candidate for governor, Rick Lazio, have used the tension surrounding the issue as a central issue for the ongoing fall campaign season.

The issue gained national attention when President Obama strongly declared his support for the mosque at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan last month.

According to the New York Times, the President acknowledged the deep emotions behind the issue, while firmly stating that he “as a citizen, and as president, [believes] that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.”

Students at St. John’s have also been vocal about their opinions on the controversial issue.

Freshman Faterna Elias believes that the project is a chance for the city – and the country – to show how important tolerance is.

“Park51 will allow for religious freedom and will allow Americans as well as the world to see that America truly is a free country which does not discriminate,” she said.

Sophomore Shilea Pinkett agreed that the right to build the center should not be denied under our constitution, but is not entirely comfortable with the project.

“They have the right of course, but with all the country has been through, I don’t think they should do it. It’s a question of decency,” she said. “It’s a fine line, and they’re playing with it.”