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In New York, hundreds protest planned Islamic center

Kathy O’Shea lost her firefighter nephew in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York. Only the nameplate from his helmet was found.

That painful memory was one reason she joined several hundred people Sunday to protest a proposed Islamic community center and mosque that would be built about two blocks from the site of the fallen World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

“Everyone has closure when they lose someone,” said O’Shea, a paralegal. “We’ll never have closure.”

About a block away, counterdemonstrators organized by the Coalition to Stop Islamophobia supported the right to build the center. Police kept the groups apart.

Dr. Ali Akram, 39, a Brooklyn physician, came with his three sons and an 11-year-old nephew waving an American flag. Scores of Muslims were among the 2,700 who died in the New York attack, he said, calling those who oppose the center and mosque “un-American.”

“They teach their children about the freedom of religion in America, but they don’t practice what they preach,” Akram told the Associated Press.

O’Shea said she believes in religious freedom. “It’s not about that,” she said. “Just don’t build it here; build it somewhere else.”

The proposed $100-million community center and mosque has sparked nationwide debate. President Obama has supported developers’ right to build it, citing religious freedom, as has New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Gov. David Paterson has suggested building it on state-owned land elsewhere.

Politicians who oppose the project include Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was New York mayor at the time of the attacks; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is facing a difficult reelection campaign; and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

One of the organizers of the community center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is in the Middle East on a trip funded by the State Department to promote religious tolerance. He told a gathering at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Bahrain on Sunday that he took heart from the dispute, saying “the fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success.”

“It is my hope that people will understand more,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

But among the project’s opponents in New York on Sunday, understanding appeared to be in short supply. At the event, organized by the Coalition to Honor Ground Zero, protesters chanted, waved American flags and held handmade signs, and clapped and sang along as loudspeakers blared “God Bless the USA” and “God Bless America.”

Marco Larios, an unemployed carpenter, said he would rather pick up bottles in the street than earn a “bloody check” from constructing the community center.

“They want to build a memorial to the terrorists before a memorial to the victims,” he said.

Bradley Maurer, 40, said he thought the project’s developers had a right to build whatever they wanted, but not here. The location is too provocative.

“This is right in our face,” said Maurer, holding a sign with a photo of the World Trade Center rubble.

Charlotte Wahle, 89, said the mosque wouldn’t be a house of prayer. “We don’t want Islam to take over,” she said.

Mary Novotny’s 33-year-old son, Brian, was killed in the attacks on the twin towers. She called the area holy ground.

“The knife was stuck in; they’re twisting it,” said Novotny, a retired nurse, before joining other protesters in chanting, “Stop the mosque.”

A block away at the counterprotest, T-shirt designer Nechesa Morgan held a sign reading, “America! When did it become OK to be a bigot and a racist again?”

Her sign sparked a conversation with pedestrians. One man agreed with Morgan and said the opposition was based on intolerance.

“This bigotry has just gotten so out of control,” Morgan said.

Dalia Mahmoud, a member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, likened the opposition to the mosque to anti-Semitism.

“America is better than that,” she said.

A bystander, Joan Shangold, said the debate showed Americans’ ignorance about Islam.

“It’s not sacred ground that we’re standing on,” she said, noting that the best place to get a view of the former World Trade Center site is a nearby Burger King.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com


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