NEW YORK — New York cleared a key obstacle Tuesday for plans to build an Islamic center with a mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers which were toppled by Al-Qaeda in 2001.
"This is the freest City in the world. That's what makes New York special and different and strong. Our doors are open to everyone -- everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of the project.
The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously 9-0 to remove the 1850s Italian Renaissance palazzo-style structure at 45-47 Park Place from a potential list of protected buildings, said chairman Robert Tierney.
The building now houses only an abandoned clothing store. One member, Frederick Bland, noted that the older building's architect was unknown.
Many applauded the decision, but others shouted "shame" and one women held a placard saying: "Don't glorify murders of 3,000, no 9/11 mosque" and "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests."
Supporters say the project would help build bridges between the West and the Muslim world and transform both the drab lower Manhattan street and the way Americans have looked on Muslims since the deadly attacks in 2001.
"We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors... But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance," Bloomberg said.
Boasting a mosque with sports facilities, a theater, restaurant and possibly day care, the multi-story Islamic center would be open to all visitors to demonstrate that Muslims are part of their community.
But the proposed location, just around the corner from the gaping Ground Zero hole, where the Twin Towers were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001, has angered many New Yorkers who see it as an affront.
"This is a disgrace," said Andy Sullivan of Queens. "They were screaming Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) when the planes were hitting these buildings. Remember, we still have two wars going on."
The polemic has prompted two US television networks to refuse to air a slick, highly confrontational ad by a group protesting plans for the mosque.
The video, called "Kill the Ground Zero Mosque," includes references to the September 11 attacks with a voice-over saying: "On 9/11 they declared war against us... That mosque is a monument to their victory and an invitation to more."
Sarah Palin, the former Republican nominee for vice president, has led opposition.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative welcomed the news saying the facility "will be a home for all people who are yearning for understanding and healing, peace, collaboration, and interdependence.
"We are more determined than ever to take this opportunity, which we also see as a responsibility to our community and to our neighbors in Lower Manhattan," he added.
The Anti-Defamation League recently came out against the project, to some surprise, saying it rejects the "bigotry" of some opponents but saying there are "strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site" and that the project "will cause some victims more pain, unnecessarily."
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the proposal was a test for religious freedom and urged the city panel to "reject efforts by Islamophobes" to block the project.
New York state Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio has called for a probe of the mosque's funding. Bloomberg said such an action would be inappropriate.
Under construction at the site of the destroyed Twin Towers is a new skyscraper to be known as One World Trade Center, with the name "Freedom Tower" being dropped. There will also be a national September 11 memorial and museum at the site.
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