NEW YORK – In a building damaged by debris from the Sept. 11 airliners that brought down the World Trade Center and soon to become a 13-story mosque, some see the bridging of a cultural divide and an opportunity to serve a burgeoning, peaceful religious population. Others see a painful reminder of the religious extremism that killed their loved ones.
Two Muslim organizations have partnered to open the mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan, saying the $100 million project will create a venue for mainstream Islam and a counterbalance to radicalism. It earned a key endorsement this week from influential community leaders.
But some 9/11 victims' families said they were angered that it would be built so close to where their relatives died.
"I don't like it," said Evelyn Pettigano, who lost a sister in the attacks, during a phone interview on Thursday. "I'm not prejudiced. ... It's too close to the area where our family members were murdered."
But the growing number of congregants at the only other nearby mosque, open only one day a week, created a need for an additional space for Muslim prayer in the neighborhood, said Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and a board member of the Cordoba Initiative, the two organizations sponsoring the project.
The history associated with the building, a former Burlington Coat Factory store that closed after being damaged on 9/11, was a reason to pick it for the project, she said.
"We want to create a platform by which the voices of the mainstream and silent majority of Muslims will be amplified. A center of this scale and magnitude will do that," Khan said. "We feel it's an obligation as Muslims and Americans to be part of the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan."
The organizations publicly unveiled the preliminary plan for the project, known as the Cordoba House, on Wednesday at a meeting of the finance committee of the local community board, which is composed of influential stakeholders in lower Manhattan. While the agency has no authority over what can be developed at the site, their support is viewed as key to gaining acceptance from residents.
Edward "Ro" Sheffe, the chairman of the financial district committee for Community Board 1, said the 15 members passed a resolution of support for the project, though he emphasized that the board had no authority to approve or disapprove of a house of worship, per se. Indeed, he said the developers could do whatever they wanted with the building, which they own.
"They came to tell us what they had in mind and see what we felt about it," he said. "The understanding we came away with was that this was an ongoing dialogue."
The members' only concerns had to do with the aesthetics of the building, and whether it would fit with the surrounding architecture, he said. The overall feeling was one of goodwill because the financial district, a fast-growing residential area, lacks for amenities such as community centers.
"We very much need residential amenities for the people who live here," he said.
But the simple idea of a mosque so near ground zero angered those whose family members were killed by adherents to radical Islam.
"I think it's despicable, and I think it's atrocious that anyone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Center," said Rosemary Cain, whose son, George Cain, a firefighter, died on Sept. 11.
Anita LaFond Korsonsky, a Livingston, N.J., woman who lost her sister, also said she had misgivings.
"I presume that these people aren't going to be gathering there to plan another attack," she said.
The Muslim organizations plan to announce the groundbreaking later this year, possibly to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Khan said. It could take up to three years to build the Cordoba House; the groups currently have no funds for the project but plan to start raising money, she said.
A Friday prayer service has been held since September at the building, she said.
Marvin Bethea, a paramedic who survived the toxic collapse of the twin towers and suffers from a range of afflictions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and asthma, said he supports the mosque.
"Not all Muslims are terrorists," Bethea said. "Muslims died on 9/11, as well. This is a tremendous gesture to show that we're not all full of hatred and bigotry."
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