NEW YORK – The chairwoman of the community board that voted for an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero said she believes adding an interfaith dimension would help unite people, saying a nondenominational chapel built at the Pentagon as part of a Sept. 11 memorial did just that.
Julie Menin, of Manhattan Community Board 1, reiterated Monday that she supports the project going up in the proposed location two blocks north of the World Trade Center site and that it contain a mosque as developers plan. But she suggested another section of the community center be turned into an interfaith, nondenominational area for people of all religious backgrounds.
"What it could do is it could really get to the heart of the matter of making this project one that brings people together," she said.
Community Board 1 had voted overwhelmingly in May to support the Islamic center. Opponents argue it's insensitive to families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close to where Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people, while proponents support it as a reflection of religious freedom and diversity.
Menin said that she encouraged the project's organizers at the time to step back, reach out to Sept. 11 families and even hold a town hall meeting to discuss the issue but they made their own decisions on how to proceed.
Now, she said, "unfortunately what has happened is people's views have become hardened."
Menin, who first outlined her idea in an opinion piece in New York's Daily News newspaper, pointed to the interfaith chapel at the Pentagon, which was built without controversy and is used by people of many faiths.
She acknowledged that there would always be people who opposed the project but that adding the interfaith center could be an opportunity "to try to move beyond dissension and try to bring people together."
A public relations firm that represents the developers of the center, known as Park51, said plans are "still under formation" and they were "neither embracing nor rejecting the suggestion."
The developers have formed a nonprofit organization, an important step required before beginning a capital campaign. It was incorporated in Delaware on Aug. 23, and papers were submitted to the state attorney general's Charities Bureau.
The Park51 Inc. incorporation papers name Sharif El-Gamal, his brother Sammy El-Gamal and Nour Mousa as directors. Their real estate investment firm, SoHo Properties Inc., owns the proposed development site through a limited partnership.
The city confirmed Monday that the developers owe $227,570 in back taxes on the building where the Park51 center is slated to open.
The company released a statement saying the developers are challenging the real estate assessment to reduce the property taxes.
"The city has already responded to our request with a reduction," the statement said, adding they continue to negotiate.
Also listed as a director of Park51 Inc. is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the spiritual leader of the project, who recently said the opposition is closely linked to the November elections.
"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," Rauf was quoted by the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National in an interview as part of his Department of State-funded trip in the Persian Gulf region.
He added that he trusted the American people to follow the nation's constitutional principles.
"The fact of the matter is the local community board recognizes and understands the vision, the politicians in New York understand the vision and there is broad-based support for these objectives," he said. "As it is, my trust and conviction in the wisdom of the American people and political leadership and the American people at large is that they will act in accordance with the highest principles of our constitution and the fundamental American belief in justice and protection of everybody's rights."
He blamed a "tiny, vociferous minority" for the controversy and said "we need to combat the radical voices."
Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley said Rauf's comments are his own.
"I'm not surprised that, during the course of interviews that he might have had, that he was asked about the controversy," said Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington. "We certainly understand that helping people understand the genuine debate that is going on in this country, you know, is a legitimate topic of discussion during the course of his tour."
He said Rauf was now in the United Arab Emirates, the final stop of the speaking tour.
Gov. David Paterson said Monday that some of the criticism of the plans is "absolutely bigoted," some is "politically motivated" and some is self-promotional, "but I do think there is some criticism coming from a valid source, which are Americans who are chagrined at the continuing controversies that surround the ground zero area."
He also said that he doesn't need to apologize to Muslim groups who criticized him and his comments on the philosophy within Islam of those seeking to build the mosque.
Paterson said last week the Sufi philosophy was an "almost Westernized" kind of Islam that's peaceful. He denied Monday the comment implied Muslims who follow other philosophies weren't peaceful.
"I wasn't pointing it out because one was better and one was worse," Paterson said in response to a reporter's question. "I was pointing it out simply to allow all of the freethinking people of this country to recognize this is a very unique sect ... one that had dedicated itself to the spiritual enhancement of people."
Associated Press writer Michael Gormley in Albany contributed to this report.