Multifaith coalition forms to support Cordoba House

The Muslim centre, also referred to as the Ground Zero mosque, received the backing of Jewish, Christian and civic groups in New York.

NEW YORK // Muslim, Jewish, Christian and civic groups formed a coalition on Wednesday to back a plan for a Muslim center near the site of the World Trade Center attacks in New York that has sparked heated national debate. The cultural center and mosque face fierce opposition from conservative politicians and people who consider its location insensitive to families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qa'eda militants. But the newly formed New York Neighbors for American Values made up of more than 40 religious and civic groups said the debate was creating fear and division and that it would fight for US constitutional freedoms to be upheld. "We were not attacked by the Muslim world," said Donna O'Connor, spokeswoman for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose pregnant daughter was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. "We 100 percent fully support the Islamic cultural center in New York City." The debate turned national ahead of November elections - as Republicans seek to wrest control of Congress from Democrats - and in New York the city's many Muslim taxi drivers linked the controversy to an attack on a colleague. Driver Ahmed Sharif, a 43-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant, said he was slashed across the neck, face and shoulders on Tuesday by a passenger who asked if he was Muslim and observed Ramadan. Police said the attack was being investigated as a hate crime and that a 21-year-old man had been arrested and faces several charges including attempted murder and assault. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said the controversy over the Muslim cultural center and mosque had made Muslim New Yorkers vulnerable. The alliance estimates half of the city's taxi drivers are Muslim. "The environment that all the fear-mongering and the ignorance has created, we believe, is directly responsible for this kind of violence," Desai said. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will meet with Sharif at City Hall on Thursday. "This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe, no matter what God we may pray to," Bloomberg said in a statement. US President Barack Obama and Bloomberg have said they support the right of Muslims to build the center near Ground Zero, while many Republicans, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, oppose it. Polls have found at least 60 percent of Americans are against building the center near the World Trade Center site. "We reject the refrain of 'freedom of religion but not in my backyard,'" Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told a news conference to announce New York Neighbors for American Values. The plan is to build a 13-story building to house an auditorium, swimming pool, meeting rooms and prayer space. The structure is architecturally plain and does not include a minaret, dome or other motifs often associated with mosques. The building at the site now is already being used as a prayer space. New York is home to some 800,000 Muslims, about 10 percent of the city's population, and there are about 100 mosques throughout the city's five boroughs. Some opponents of the project have taken legal action, seeking to void a ruling that would allow construction to proceed, while some construction workers have launched a Hard Hat Pledge, vowing not to work on it. Reuters

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