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Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (AP/Photo by Craig Ruttle)

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Religion | A New York commission's ruling clears the way for an Islamic center to be built near Ground Zero

NEW YORK-A public outcry has followed the news of a planned Islamic community center and place of worship to be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York. But a last-ditch effort to halt construction of the project was stymied by the actions of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In a unanimous vote, the commission denied a request to give landmark status to the site, which would have prevented plans to tear down the existing 152-year-old building. The ruling clears the way for the Islamic community center project to continue.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio are among the conservative leaders who oppose the project. "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia," Gingrich said. Additionally, an ad produced by the National Republican Trust PAC shows images of 9/11 with messages such as "Where we weep, they rejoice" and "Kill the Ground Zero mosque."

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The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that fights anti-Semitism, recently added its voice to those questioning the construction of the Islamic center. In a statement released last week, the ADL wrote that while the Islamic group had every right to build a place of worship, the planned location of the center is "counterproductive to the healing process." The question is not that of rights, the ADL statement continued, "but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain-unnecessarily-and that is not right."

The Islamic group behind the project, known as the Cordoba Initiative, say the $100 million, 13-story community center is not a mosque but a prayer space, because it contains space for musical performance and a restaurant-neither of which are allowed in mosques. The group also changed the overall name of the planned facility from "Cordoba House" to "Park51" after critics noted that Cordoba is the name of a Spanish city conquered by Muslims in the eighth century. But the center will still feature a "Cordoba House" as "a center for interfaith dialogue and engagement."

At a press conference, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, said the project is an expression of moderate Muslims "who have condemned and continue to condemn terrorism." Members of his congregation died in the attacks, and he said the project's leaders are committed to rebuilding the community with cooperation from non-Muslims. Rauf has also made controversial statements in the past. He told CBS' 60 Minutes just after the 9/11 attacks, "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened but United States policies were an accessory to the crime."

New Yorkers who support the building of the Islamic center include Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Lisa Sharon Harper, executive director of New York Faith and Justice and the author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican . . . Or Democrat. Harper, who worked on issues of racial reconciliation while on staff at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said of believers who have vocally opposed the center, "For Christians to exercise that kind of vitriol is actually directly counter to our faith, which calls us to forgive." Of the Muslims who want to build the center, she said, "The intent is one of honor and reconciliation and it's one that's intended to bring people together."

In a response to the commission's decision today, Park51 released a statement on its website saying it is applying for 501(c)3 status and recruiting an advisory board to continue its plans.

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