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(RNS) The imam who proposed an Islamic community center near Ground Zero said Tuesday (Sept. 7) that changing his plans would play into the hands of extremists who think Americans oppose Islam.
“The wonderful outpouring of support for our right to build this community center from across the social, religious and political spectrum seriously undermines the ability of anti-American radicals to recruit young, impressionable Muslims by falsely claiming that America persecutes Muslims for their faith,” wrote Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, in an op-ed in The New York Times.

He defended the project, known as Park51, as an interfaith initiative, including prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians and Jews as well as a multifaith memorial to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks that occurred nine years ago.

“Our objective has always been to make this a center for unification and healing,” he wrote. “Cordoba House will be built on the two fundamental commandments common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: to love the Lord our creator with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength; and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

The center has come under a firestorm of protest, with some suggesting it should be moved to a location farther away from Ground Zero and others saying its proposed site is a matter of religious freedom. The controversy has sparked months of debate, been followed by attacks on Muslims and other mosques and led to strong statements against Islamophobia by Muslim leaders and clergy of other faiths.

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