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Battleground

9/11 | On the ninth anniversary of attacks, Ground Zero is a more contested site than ever

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

NEW YORK-ndy Sullivan stands on the New York City block where Islamic leaders plan to build a mosque and describes what it looked like on 9/11: "It was like a wall of gray ash, rushing like a tsunami. Everybody was running. You were running down this street like an animal, for your life. You were diving underneath cars. You were jumping into doorways to get away from this cloud of death." He points to the building designated for the mosque, an old Burlington Coat Factory, and remembers that the landing gear from the plane fell through its roof on that day.

That's why he opposes building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. The fight over the property has divided New Yorkers: A majority of Manhattanites support the mosque and a majority of Bronx and Brooklyn residents oppose it. It has divided victims' families: September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has supported the mosque since May, while 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America organized a rally against it. Another battle takes place on the ninth anniversary of the attacks this Sept. 11, when conservative blogger Pamela Geller will gather mosque protesters again in a "solemn protest" that will include interfaith prayer and messages from conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart, former UN ambassador John Bolton, and Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

Sullivan, a construction supervisor, says the fight is about the ruling class of Manhattan trampling the will of the people. The people rallying against the mosque are like him, he says: "Johnny Lunch Pail, Sally Housecoat, salt of the earth, pay their taxes, fight the wars, pay their bills, build the buildings, the roads, the bridges. Real people." He feels betrayed by the New York City community board that voted to support the mosque's construction and betrayed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission that voted unanimously to deny the site landmark status. After that meeting, he went to his fellow blue-collar workers and got 5,000 New York City tradesmen to boycott the mosque's construction.

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The fight has divided Christians, too. Alex McFarland, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., went to Ground Zero days after the attacks to minister and evangelize. He said that the mosque fight is proof that "pure Islam" and American democracy will have trouble coexisting: "The encroachment of Islam would erode our freedoms." Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, supports the mosque, saying it will aid the war on terror by making a distinction between terrorists and other Muslims. As a Catholic, he recalls harsh anti-Catholic prejudice: "Remembering that makes me more sensitive to this kind of discrimination against Muslims."

In a downtown of glass towers, the squat Burlington Coat Factory seems out of place with its sandy bricks, pillars, and peeling paint. Faded letters, "Coats and more . . . for less!" still appear on the front of the building. Underneath, three young people stand with signs supporting the mosque. Zeke Mermell, who is Jewish, holds a sign with the First Amendment written on it and the "free exercise of religion" clause underlined. Matt Sky said in his eight days of all-day protests, someone threw his "Support Freedom of Religion" sign under a truck and another said, "I hope you're the next to die in the next attack." Sky, a Lutheran, said Christians should understand that intimidating Muslims "also threatens people who aren't Muslims."

Meanwhile, more cynical New Yorkers are sending out an e-card that jokes, "I'm okay with a mosque being built at Ground Zero because at least something would be built at Ground Zero." It has taken New York City nine years to build just 34 floors in One World Trade Center. And while the mosque project might move forward, a Greek Orthodox Church that collapsed on 9/11 has been halted in rebuilding negotiations with the city that collapsed completely since March 2009. The 9/11 Memorial is still an interactive 3D model, leading Sullivan to ask, "How upside-down backward is this country today?"

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