NYC Green-lights Ground Zero Islamic Center

The construction of a 15-story Islamic center near the former World Trade Center was given the green light on Tuesday by New York City's Landmark Preservations Commission, who voted 9-0 against bestowing historical status on the 152-year-old building.

The decision opens the way for demolition of the site, located on 45-47 Park Place, which developers are looking to turn into a $100 million interfaith community center including a prayer space, performing arts center, swimming pool, and a restaurant.

The building was previously damaged by the landing gear of one of the planes used in the September 11 attacks, but the commission said the location does not have enough historical significance to be called a landmark.

Following the vote, several members in the audience shouted "Shame on you!" at the commission, expressing frustrations that opponents of the center, now dubbed the Park51 project, have had over what they see as a victory marker for radical Muslims.

Politicians such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have joined in the criticism as well as prominent Jewish group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL,) who said that the controversy surrounding the center's development is "counterproductive to the healing process" of the 9/11 attacks.

"Building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain - unnecessarily - and that is not right," the ADL said in a statement.

For Park51's developers, however, the center is meant to be a place where the religious tensions of September 11 will be resolved.

Park51 will be a "place for Muslims to come together…where divisions would gradually peel away and a new vision of Islam that is culturally American would emerge," Daisy Khan, one of the center's founders, told the Wall Street Journal.

Sarah Sayeed of the Interfaith Center of New York told the Ecumenical Press that Muslims have been a part of lower Manhattan's landscape for decades, and that the controversy surrounding the "ground zero mosque" shows a disregard for that history.

Muslims in Lower Manhattan "have been playing important roles in terms of reconciliation and educating people about Islam for a really long time, even before 9/11," said Sayeed, whose organization works closely with Park51's developers.

"This whole conversation has just become absorbed into our very polarized and partisan discourse and I think it's unfortunate," she added.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, who has been a staunch supporter of Park51's development, reiterated his backing of the center on Tuesday in an emotional speech delivered on Governor's Island near the Statue of Liberty.

"On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked 'What God do you pray to?' 'What beliefs do you hold?'" Bloomberg said.

"The 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," he added.

Bloomberg was joined by a host of religious leaders including Father Alexander Karloutsos from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Rabbi Bob Kaplan from the Jewish Community Council, Reverend Brian Jordan from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, and Reverend Jim Cooper from Trinity Church, among others.

Meanwhile, opponents of the center are continuing their fight.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents a New York firefighter who survived 9/11, said they will file a lawsuit against the landmark commission for "abuse of discretion" in their decision.

Human rights group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), who organized a large protest against the center in June, are planning a second protest on this year's anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – the date that Park51 is scheduled to open.

"The only Muslim center that should be built in the shadow of the World Trade Center is one that is devoted to expunging the Koran and all Islamic teachings of the violent jihad that they prescribe, as well as all hateful texts and incitement to violence," said SIOA head Pamela Geller.

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