While details of the funding for the $100 million complex just two blocks from the former World Trade Center site remain sketchy, proponents say the project would be a bridge between Islam and a city still recovering from the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
For some survivors, erecting a mosque and 12-story glass-and-steel complex at the old Burlington Coat Factory at 45 Park Place in lower Manhattan is offensive. For others, the cultural center represents a step towards improved relations with the Muslim world.
Retired New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Riches, whose 29-year-old son Jim, a firefighter, was killed on 9/11, said he wasn't opposed to the mosque. But don't build it so close to ground considered sacred by many New Yorkers, he said.
"There are still 1,000 bodies that haven't been found," he said of remains of the 2,752 people killed in the attacks. "They're still finding little bits and pieces of the victims. And these people want to build a big 12-story mosque with a swimming pool."
Riches called the Islamic center proposal "a slap in the face of the families."
"To me, it's a religion of hate," he said of Islam. "There might be some good ones. I don't know them but they haven't stood up and knocked the other ones down. I don't want to go down there on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and see 2,000 Arabs outside. Maybe they'll start cheering."
Ted Sjurseth, a founder of America's 9/11 Foundation, a Virginia-based support group for first responders, called the mosque plan "a stick in the eye."
"It's tasteless that the city has allowed this to get as far as it has," Sjurseth said.
The controversy over the cultural center highlights the raw tensions that persist nearly a decade after the terrorist attacks shook the nation and sent it to war. Since the attacks, American Muslims have been increasingly targeted as terror suspects.
But Donna Marsh O'Connor, who lost her daughter Vanessa on 9/11, questioned why "a center dedicated to peace and understanding should be built anywhere but at Ground Zero." She represents the support group September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which, she said, counts 250 families of victims as members.
"I will not speak for everyone in our group but, as an organization, we stand for this center and this mosque," she said. "The mosque and center should be built. It's important to the future of America. It does honor to my daughter that in this place of hell on earth, a place for peace and love be established."
Mary Fetchet, whose son Brad died on 9/11, said the group she represents, Voices of September 11th, had received some calls from families opposed to the mosque. The group represents about 11,000 relatives of rescue workers and victims. "We encourage people concerned about the project to contact their elected officials, but we have not taken a position," she said.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a spiritual adviser and author, said the center should include exhibits chronicling the rise of Islamic extremism, with a strong repudiation of terrorism.
"This question goes to the very heart of American democracy," he said. "On the one hand, stopping a mosque from being built undermines the very notion of freedom of worship in the United States. On the other hand, the idea of building a mosque and celebrating Islam at the site where 3,000 innocent Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists is an affront to so many people that I see it dividing New York and the nation."
The Islamic center project is the brainchild of Feisel Abdul Rauf, a New York imam, and Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. They hope to raise the estimated $100 million for the center through bonds and fundraising efforts.
Known as Cordoba House, the Islamic center will have a mosque for up to 1,500 worshippers on Fridays, Khan said. The complex would also include a swimming pool, performance space and a basketball court. It will be open to non-Muslims. Some 500 worshipers already use the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory for Friday prayers.
Khan said her group is open to suggestions from the community, and its members are reaching out to families opposed to the project in hopes of gaining their support. The plan for the mosque and cultural center was unanimously endorsed earlier this month by Community Board 1's financial district committee.
"It is definitely not part of the World Trade Center site," she said. "It's two blocks away. It's not even in front of the site, but on a side street. We already have a presence in the neighborhood … and we want to build a peaceful future. This center will give a platform to the silent majority of Muslims whose voices get drowned out by the actions of extremists."
The group hopes to unveil its full plans for the project by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2011. "Extremism can only be defeated when Muslims and non-Muslims come together," Khan said.