A group of 40 prominent religious leaders have expressed their support of the proposed Islamic center near the former World Trade Center while denouncing the "xenophobic and religious bigotry" that has come out over the project.
The leaders, hailing from evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds, said they were "troubled" by remarks from politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who called the proposed center an "insult" and a "provocation."
The group also blasted Fox news for airing a "steady stream of irresponsible commentary and biased coverage that reduces what should be a civil debate into starkly combative terms."
"Mr. Gingrich, Ms. Palin and other prominent voices privileged to have the ear of the media would make a more lasting contribution to our nation if they stopped issuing inflammatory statements and instead helped inspire a civil dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims committed to a future guided by the principles of compassion, justice and peace," the group said.
"Fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric only undermine treasured values at the heart of diverse faith traditions and our nation's highest ideals," they added.
Of the proposed Islamic center, which the group cites as being purposed to support "integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture," the leaders say that "these are exactly the kind of efforts that foster dialogue, break down barriers and begin to build a world where religiously inspired violent extremism is less likely."
"We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion and peace by associating all Muslims with violent extremism. That's like equating all Christians to Timothy McVeigh's actions," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches (NCC). "This center will reflect not only the best of Islam, but the enduring hope that Christians, Jews and Muslims can together find common ground in addressing the most urgent challenges of our time."
Prominent signers on the statement include the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the NCC; David Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA; Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; Mohamed Elsanousi of the Islamic Society of North America; and John Esposito of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Georgetown University, among others.
The leaders' statement comes in the midst of a heated debate over whether the proposed Islamic center represents the best of religious freedom in the United States or whether it is an insensitive gesture towards the victims of 9/11.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has championed the center's construction, saying that that the proper way to honor the victims of 9/11 is to defend the rights that they died protecting.
The September 11 attack "was an act of war – and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights – and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked," Bloomberg said in a speech last week.
New York Governor David Paterson, meanwhile, said yesterday that the project has produced too much strife for the surrounding community, and that he's willing to offer state help to have the center moved.
"I think it's rather clear that building a center there meets all the requirements, but it does seem to ignite an immense amount of anxiety among the citizens of New York and people everywhere, and I think not without cause," Paterson told reporters in Manhattan.
"I am very sensitive to the desire of those who are adamant against it to see something else worked out," he added.
Others have supported the center's construction but have stressed to developers that they should emphasize the project's interfaith aspects and give special recognition to those affected by 9/11.
"The imam in New York should ensure that the cultural center -- which he has clarified is not simply a mosque -- invites Christians and Jews to include a church and a synagogue so that the building is truly a symbol of interfaith worship. That is the American way," Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic Studies at American University, said in an opinion piece on CNN. "Also, the center must include a special memorial to those who died on 9/11, as proposed, so that people of different faiths can pray for their souls and thus begin to heal the wounds."
The project, named Park51 and located 2 blocks from the WTC construction site, is slated to become a 15-story cultural center that will include a prayer space, performing arts center, swimming pool and a restaurant.
Developers were given final approval by New York City officials last week, but are now facing a lawsuit from a Christian legal group, who said that the officials committed an abuse of discretion in their decision.
Other opponents have planned protests against the project, including one on this year's 9/11 anniversary.