New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has voiced his support for the building of an interfaith community center near Ground Zero which has drawn controversy because of its Islamic backing.
Organizers have planned the center, dubbed the Cordoba House, to be developed on Park Place where the former Burlington Coat Factory now stands.
And while the planners are chiefly moderate Muslims, and space will be set apart for some 2,000 Muslims to hold prayer gatherings, the organizers claim that the 13-story building will be a center for the entire Lower Manhattan community, and will include interfaith and secular programming.
In a statement released last Thursday, Bloomberg defended the center's establishment on the grounds of religious freedom rights.
"If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship, they should do it and we shouldn't be in the business of picking which religions can and which religions can't," Bloomberg said.
"I think it's fair to say if somebody was going to try to on that piece of property build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming," he continued. "And the fact of the matter is that Muslims have a right to do it too."
"What is great about America and particularly New York is we welcome everybody and I just- you know, if we are so afraid of something like this, what does it say about us? Democracy is stronger than this," he added.
"You know, the ability to practice your religion is the- was one of the real reasons America was founded. And for us to say no is just, I think, not appropriate is a nice way to phrase it."
Responding to the mayor's statement, the Cordoba Initiative reiterated that the new center "is not intended to be a house of worship, exclusive to Muslims" and said that they value Mr. Bloomberg's support.
With his remarks, Bloomberg joins a growing chorus of New York politicians who are defending the development of the Cordoba House against increasingly aggressive criticism.
Last Sunday, thousands came out to protest the development of the center, which they said would be an insensitive gesture towards the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks.
"Ground Zero is a war memorial. Ground Zero is a burial ground," said rally organizer Pamela Geller. "We are asking for sensitivity."
In May, Tea Party leader Mark Williams wrote on his blog that the Cordoba House would be a monument "for the worship the terrorists' monkey-god."
Williams later apologized for the posting, but addressed it towards Hindus, who he said worship "an actual Monkey God."
The remarks brought a strong response from both Islamic groups and politicians.
Borough President Scott Stringer said in a press conference a day afterwards that Williams' "spewing of racial hatred" reminded him of Adolph Hitler, adding that he rejected the politician's "bigotry."
Corey Saylor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations noted that "It would be shocking if such ignorant comments failed to elicit a strong response not only from Tea Party leaders, but from other parties throughout the political spectrum."
Daisy Khan, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, told local sources that the group has a "vision that is opposite the vision of [Muslim] extremists."
"We want to be a driving force for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan," she said.