NY Religious, Civic Leaders Rally Support for Islamic Center

A group of nearly 40 religious and civil rights groups in New York have banded together in support of the proposed 13-story Islamic center near the former World Trade Center.

The group, named the New York Neighbors for American Values, say that they support the center because of their belief in the "core American values of religious freedom, diversity and equality."

"As community groups and organizations representing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, we welcome the planned Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan – as we would welcome any center planned by neighbors of good will," the group said in a statement released earlier this week.

"We call on our neighbors in New York and across the nation to stand up and stand united: Our Constitution's founding freedoms extend to every person and every house of worship, regardless of creed or color," they continue. "America's founding values must be welcome on every street and in every town square across the nation."

The group's statement comes as a wave of anti-Muslim hate crimes have broken out across the nation, including in New York City where a Muslim cab driver was nearly stabbed to death by a passenger after the driver affirmed his faith.

Ahmed Sharif, a cab-driver of nearly 15 years, was stabbed repeatedly with a pocket knife on Tuesday by Michael Enright, a 21-year-old honors film student, after Enright asked him if he was a Muslim.

Sharif suffered cuts to his face, neck, and shoulders that doctors say could have been fatal if they were any deeper.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood by Sharif in a press conference on Thursday, saying that the incident "should never have happened and hopefully won't happen again."

"Hopefully, people will understand that we can have a discourse," Bloomberg said. "That's what the First Amendment is all about. That's what America is all about."

Sharif's attack has been the most severe hate-crime reported since the controversy over the Islamic center erupted, but anti-Muslim opposition has sprung up in other cities as well, including Fresno, Calif. where a mosque was vandalized on Wednesday with a sign reading "No temple for the god of terrorism."

That same evening in Queens, New York, a drunken man entered a mosque and urinated on the prayer rugs while yelling anti-Muslim slurs.

A proposed mosque in Mufreesboro, Tenn. has also met with heated opposition while a church in Florida has planned to burn hundreds of copies of the Koran on September 11.

In a recent interview with ABC News, New York center developer Daisy Khan said she feels 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.

Such sentiments are one of the reasons why Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, have insisted that the center must be built, as they claim it will be a place of understanding and reconciliation, especially between Muslim Americans and their neighbors.

"Park51 will be dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet," the project's vision statement reads. "Park51 will join New York to the world, offering a welcoming community center with multiple points of entry."

New York Neighbor coalition member and Auburn Theological Seminary President Katharine Henderson says that Khan and Feisal can be trusted to fulfill their vision of the center.

"We are friends with Imam Feisal and Daisy Khan and we have worked with them for over a decade and they are the real thing," Henderson said. "These are allies and these are Muslim leaders that we need in our city, they have given their lives for American values of appreciation tolerance and understanding that we all believe in."

Meanwhile, opponents and supporters of the project are planning further demonstrations on this year's anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Opponent groups Stop Islamization of America and the Freedom Defense Initiative will be staging a protest near Ground Zero at 2 p.m. while the New York Neighbors for American Values will hold a candlelight vigil later in the evening.

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