Islamic Center 'Ground Zero Mosque' Controversy Heats Up

Two prominent New York leaders, Gov. David Paterson and Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the city, have weighed in on the controversy over the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, suggesting that the center be moved to an alternative location in lower Manhattan.

Paterson said he would like to work with the developers to find a compromise site for the center, now called Park51.

VIDEO: President Obama Doesnt Regret Mosque CommentsPlay
President Obama Has No Regrets Over Mosque Comments, Right to Build on Grand Zero

"If people put their heads together, maybe we could find a site that's away from the site now but still serves the ... area," the governor told CNN's "Larry King Live" on Wednesday. "That would be a noble gesture to those who live in the area who suffered after the attack on this country, and at the same time would probably in many ways change a lot of people's minds about Islam, which is really a peaceful religion practiced by peace-loving people."

New York's archbishop echoed that sentiment, offering his prayers that a compromise can be reached. In an interview with WCBS radio, he questioned whether the center's proposed location is unnecessarily provocative.

"Those who wonder about the wisdom of the situation of the mosque, near such a wounded site, ask what I think are some legitimate questions that I think deserve attention," Dolan said.

The Islamic center, which has been in the works for over a year, has become a nationwide controversy as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Critics charge that having what they call a mosque so close what they consider hallowed ground is insensitive and an insult to the victims' families, especially since the attack was perpetrated in the name of Islam.

The contentious debate has followed the president, who told ABC News Wednesday that he has "no regrets" for commenting on the issue last week.

Obama said Friday that he believes Muslims have "the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan," but on Saturday said that he would not comment on the "wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there."

The public is overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of the mosque near ground zero.

Conservatives Launch Effort to Oppose Mosque

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., echoed the president's support for freedom of religion and has called for an investigation into funding, not for the center, but for the conservative effort to oppose it.

"There is no question that there's a concerted effort to make this a political issue by some," Pelosi told San Francisco radio station KCBS. "I join those who have called for looking into how is this opposition to the mosque being funded."

Some of that opposition is being ginned up by Keep America Safe, a group founded by Republicans William Kristol and Liz Cheney, which focuses primarily on national security issues. The group has posted an ad online called "We Remember" which features family members of 9/11 victims voicing their concerns about construction of the Muslim community center.

But not every Republican agrees. Ted Olson, the former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, whose first wife died on 9/11, said that he agrees with President Obama's message of tolerance.

"I do believe that people of all religions have a right to build edifices or structures or places of religious study where the community allows them to do it under the zoning laws and that sort of thing," Olson said in an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell. "We don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith."

The religious debate has intensified as a new poll from the Pew Research Center reveals that 18 percent of Americans -- nearly one in 5 -- erroneously believe that the president is a Muslim. The number of Americans who believe the president is a Christian, which he is, has declined from 48 percent last year to 34 percent today. A full 43 percent say they do not know what the president's religion is.

Islamic Center Won't Rule Out Saudi, Iran Funds

The developers behind the center won't rule out accepting financing from the Mideast -- including from Saudi Arabia and Iran -- as they begin searching for $100 million needed to build the project.

The religious organization and the development company behind the center declined to say how much of the $100 million needed to build the facility has already been raised.

"We are in the planning stages," said Oz Sultan, spokesman for the center. "We have just started the process of fundraising planning."

Sultan said it would take three to six months to establish a plan on how to raise the needed capital. He said any fundraising campaign would begin domestically, but he would not comment on whether it would extend overseas or to foreign governments.

"We'll look at all available options within the United States to start. We're hoping to fund this predominately from domestic donors. That can be everything from institutions all the way down to personal [contributors,]" said Sultan.

When asked if they would then turn to foreign donors, Sultan replied, "I can't comment on that."

Pressed on whether the developers were willing rule out accepting donations from the governments of Saudi Arabia or Iran, he repeated, "I can't comment on that."

Fifteen of the 19 terrorists on 9/11 were Saudi Arabian and funding from that country could further anger those already opposed to the mosque. Many mosques in the U.S. have been funded in part with Saudi money.

Iran has been designated a sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government.

Sultan declined to say how much, if anything, the developers have raised so far.

Through the Park51 Twitter account, Sultan said: "We will disclose funding of the project in compliance with state and federal law as well as vet investors with the [Department of] Treasury."

Sultan said the timeline for fundraising is typical for large scale building projects in New York City.

"You 'spec' the project and then go to the bank, bond offerings and private investors. When Donald Trump says he's building a $250 million building, it's the same general process," he said.

Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, the cultural organization behind the mosque is currently on a federally funded State Department tour of the Middle East, visiting Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The imam is a Sufi Muslim, a mystical branch of Islam whose adherents have been attacked by Muslim extremists overseas.

Rauf will not be allowed to raise funds for the Islamic center on this trip, which will cost U.S. taxpayers around $16,000.

Sultan said the groups behind Park51 had recently been in touch with New York Gov. David Paterson's office to discuss the governor's reported proposal to move the center to a parcel of land currently owned by the state. Earlier in the week, the group said they were unaware of any discussions with Paterson.

"There's been an initial contact and I know a conversation is ongoing," Sultan said, but would not comment on the details.