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Background of the Ground Zero Mosque Issue

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Park51 Building

The building which is poised to house the Park51 Islamic community center, also known as the Ground Zero Mosque, in New York.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What's All the Fuss About?:

The "Park51" community center is the official name for the building that has become known as the "Ground Zero Mosque." Park51 is designed as a community center (much like the YMCA), with state-of-the-art facilities for recreation, education, arts, culture, and interfaith outreach.

Critics have pounced on the fact that the project is being spearheaded by Muslims, and a Muslim prayer hall will be included among the facilities. Its proximity to Ground Zero is considered by some to be a painful slap-in-the-face. Politicians and others have questioned the wisdom of building a mosque in the area.

Muslims in Lower Manhattan:

There has actually been a "Ground Zero" mosque for 30 years, since before there was even a World Trade Center. Masjid Manhattan was established in 1970 just four blocks from what would later become the WTC. In early 2009 they lost their lease and moved to temporary quarters (also in lower Manhattan). The new space can only hold a fraction of worshippers at a time.

The tiny Masjid Al-Farah has also been located here for decades, a few blocks from Ground Zero. This mosque holds worship services for the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Manhattan is a diverse cultural and religious community, and has been for many years.

What Is the Building To Be Used For?:

Park51 is designed as a community center, offering services in the neighborhood that do not currently exist. Initial designs show state-of-the-art facilities for recreation and fitness, education programs, art studios and exhibition space, childcare services, and a 500-seat public auditorium. A 9/11 memorial and quiet reflection room is part of the design. It is planned that one small part of the 13-story building will be set aside as a mosque prayer hall. Planners hope that the center will serve as a model of moderate dialogue, diversity, and service to the community.

Supporters:

Supporters point out that the center is being developed by moderate Muslims as a service to lower Manhattan, an area which seeks revitalization projects and community services.

The development has the support of the local Manhattan community which it will serve, including neighbors and local elected officials. A coalition of over 40 organizations, civic groups and leaders has formed the NY Neighbors for American Values support group. Mayor Bloomberg has said: “Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith, and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group.”

Critics:

Opponents of Park51 cite a variety of reasons, which are unfortunately based largely on ignorance and fear. There are some who honestly feel that the center might cause pain to family members who come to visit the future Ground Zero memorial. However, this concern has been exploited by politicians across the nation, who have added their own baseless accusations.

The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission:

In order to move forward with development, Park51 project managers are complying with the law by seeking all necessary permits and approvals. A petition to the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission was required, in order to determine if it was acceptable to demolish the existing, damaged Burlington Coat Factory building and build a new structure in its place.

On 3 August 2010, the Commission determined that the building does not meet the criteria of a historic landmark. This decision cleared the way for Park51 organizers to proceed with plans to develop the site.

Governor Paterson Proposal:

As public and media criticism started to rise in opposition to the Park51 plans, the New York Governor spoke up. Governor Paterson acknowledged the community's right to build a community center on the site, but added that he understands the concerns and would like to help explore alternatives. In August 2010, Governor Paterson offered to help the developers find another site. After consideration, the project organizers declined, explaining that "this has always been about serving Lower Manhattan."

President Obama:

On the controversy, President Obama has said: "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure."

The following day, President Obama clarified his comments, adding that while Muslims have the right to build the mosque, he would not comment on the "wisdom" of doing so in the proposed location.

What's Next?:

The Park51 project is still in the initial planning phases. The organization has not yet applied for non-profit (501)c3 status, nor has it started any fundraising campaigns. An advisory committee is being recruited. Project leaders have said that even the plans for the building are open to discussion and change.

In the meantime, the issue has become a political talking point in the run-up to November elections. Governor Paterson has repeated his proposal to help find an alternative location, and plans to meet with Park51 developers.

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