Dozens of proponents of a proposed 13-story Islamic cultural center near the former World Trade Center came out in support of the project yesterday while a much larger group of opponents held a rally a block away.
Police separated the two groups on opposite sides of the Park51 project site as protestors gave speeches and chanted slogans.
"We're out here supporting freedom of religion in America – something we didn't think we'd have to be fighting for in 2010," said Matt Sky, a 26-year-old artist who had been out for five days in support of the Islamic center.
"I got a chance to meet everyone [at Park51]…I prayed with everyone over there and it was a fantastic experience," he said. "I realized again first hand, how similar we really are and how terrible it is that people at such a high level in our government and in the media are trying to divide us like this," he said.
Sky waved a sign saying "Support Freedom of Religion" as he rallied with a group of about 75 people - a significantly smaller number than the nearly 500 people opposing the project down the block.
Supporters of the center stood on a ladder to make their speeches while a podium, stage, loudspeakers, and a tent to protect from the rain were set up for the center's opponents.
Opponents shouted "down with Bloomberg" as New York City Councilman Dan Halloran took the stage to apologize that the city is being "mis-served by its public servants."
Mayor Bloomberg "just doesn't get it," said Halloran, who lost his cousin during the 9/11 attacks. "This is not about religious freedom. We all understand that constitutionally, they have a right to build here. That's not the problem. The problem is if we want a nation of peace, then peace comes with understanding. And they need to understand that this is sacred ground to New Yorkers."
"This nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Sharia law does not think that all men are created equal," Halloran added.
The protests come as a nationwide debate over the appropriateness of the Islamic center has reached a fever pitch.
Supporters of the center, which include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say the country's religious freedom rights mandate permission for the center to be built, while opponents see the center as either an insensitive gesture towards 9/11 victims or a political victory statement for Islam.
The project's developers, who describe themselves as moderate Muslims and "bridge-builders," believe the center will become a place of reconciliation and peacemaking between Muslims and other Americans.
In a recent interview with ABC News, developer Daisy Khan said that she and her husband have been doing more to reach out to opponents of the center since the controversy erupted.
"Well, what we're doing is we're meeting several stakeholders right now, because we understand the pain and the anguish that has been displayed throughout the country, with the polls that are represented out there," Khan said. "And we indeed want to build bridges. We don't want to create conflict. This is not where we were coming from. So, this is an opportunity for us to really turn this around and make this into something very, very positive."
Regarding an offer from New York Governor Dave Paterson's to move the center to a location father from Ground Zero on state-sponsored land, however, Khan said that the option is not currently on the table.
For Sky, who is a baptized Lutheran, moving the Park51 center would imply that Muslim Americans need to apologize for the 9/11 attacks, which he says is not the case.
Muslim Americans "don't have to apologize for anything, they didn't attack us at 9/11, a group of radical fundamentalists attacked us on 9/11," he said, adding that there are extremists in every religious group.
"There are a lot of Christians in this country who want to replace the stars and the flag with a big cross," Sky said. "I'm a Christian, and I believe in the values of America…in the values of religious tolerance and freedom, but unfortunately a lot of people want to eliminate every other religion except their own."
Sky also believes that a majority of Americans have deep misunderstandings about Islam due to the propaganda that has been pushed by politicians and media following 9/11.
"It's fear at its core, and misunderstanding. People don't understand what Islam is, and they're being told by prominent people in our government and in the media that Islam equals terrorism…if not directly, then indirectly, the implication is being made," Sky said.
Khan agrees, saying that the negative sentiments against Muslims in the country are like a "metastasized anti-Semitism."
"That's what we feel right now. It's not even Islamophobia, it's beyond Islamophobia. It's hate of Muslims. And we are deeply concerned," she said.
Khan added that she believes the project will prevail amidst the controversy.
"There's too much at stake. We have to go ahead with this project," she said.