Ground Zero Mosque Opponents, Supporters Turn Out to Demonstrate

Opposition is "metastasized antisemitism," community center planner says.

August 18, 2010, 2:25 PM

Aug. 22, 2010— -- Protesters went head to head today at the site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.

Chants both for and against the center resounded in the streets of lower Manhattan.

"Hallowed ground, that's a lie, you don't care if muslims die!" blended with "USA, USA!"

The project, which is called Park51, has created a national debate over religious tolerance and sensitivity to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The proposed center is two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. It has often been referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque," although its supporters say it would mainly be a community center, not principally a mosque.

Critics charge that having what they call a mosque so close to what they consider hallowed ground is an insult to the 9/11 victims' families, especially because the attack was perpetrated in the name of Islam.

At the demonstrations today, the New York Police Department estimated 250 people showed up in support of the center.

"I am surprised that in America in 2010 racism and bigotry has found another face. Now it is against the Muslims," said Ali Akram, a supporter of the proposed center.

Almost 1,000 people showed up to make it clear they do not support the proposed community center and mosque, according to the NYPD.

"I am here to protest this nonreligious mosque, which is a symbol of Muslim victory," protester Carl Blum said.

The opposition included union construction workers who have created the "9/11 Hard Hat Pledge." The construction workers involved are refusing to work on the site.

"I would definitely refuse to work on it," one construction worker said. "I think it's just too close to home here."

Just days after the attacks on the World Trade Centers, President George W. Bush went to a mosque in an attempt to make a distinction between Islam and terrorism.

'Ground Zero Mosque': Organizer Says No Backing Out Now

"That's not what Islam is about. It's about peace," Bush said in a speech at the Islamic Center in Washington on Sept. 17, 2001.

While Bush has remained silent over the proposed center, other conservatives have been speaking out in opposition.

Newt Gingrich recently compared the center's proximity to Ground Zero with the Nazis putting up a site next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

On ABC News' "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," one of the Islamic center's organizers, Daisy Kahn, said the backlash can be linked to racism.

"This is like a metastasized anti-Semitism," Kahn said. "It's not even Islamophobia, it's beyond Islamophobia -- it's hate of Muslims."

Some at the protest today said they believed the mosque should be built, but not in the proposed location.

"There are hundreds of mosques in New York, just not in the shadow of Ground Zero," Nahma Sandrow told ABC News.

There are currently no plans to change locations, and Kahn said that right now that is not an option.

Opponents of the project stood in the rain, holding signs saying, "You Can Build Your Mosque at Ground Zero When We Can Build Our Synagogue at Mecca," and "Building a Mosque at Ground Zero Is Like Building a Memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz."

"We don't care what bigots say, religious freedom's here to stay," the community center's supporters responded.

One of the supporters carried a sign that said, "Defend Muslims, stop the hate."

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, said on "This Week" that she hopes the dispute can be settled.

"What this whole controversy has unleashed is a tremendous amount of misinformation, a lack of knowledge about Islam that we need to address," she said.

Khan's husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is on a 15-day Mideast tour funded by the U.S. State Department, where he said today he hopes to draw attention to the common challenges to battle radical religious beliefs.

'Ground Zero Mosque': Organizer Says No Backing Out Now

Speaking in Manama, Bahrain, Rauf said that all the controversy aroused by the planned community center

"The fact that we're getting this kind of attention is a sign of success," he said. "With god's help ... we will pass through these stormy times."

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

Oz Sultan, a spokesman for the planned center in New York, 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 owned by the state. Earlier in the week, the groups said they were unaware of any discussions about a new site with Paterson.

"There's been an initial contact and I know a conversation is ongoing," Sultan said, declining to discuss the details.

Paterson's office did not return calls for comment.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 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."

ABC News' Aaron Katersky, Dean Schabner, Ned Potter, Russell Goldman and The Associated Press contributed to this story.