The tense climate around a proposal for an Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero could put New Yorkers in danger of losing their sense of tolerance and unity, values they embraced in the days after Sept. 11, the leader of the area's Roman Catholics said Tuesday.
"We're just a little bit apprehensive that these noble values may be a bit at risk in this way the conversation and debate about the site of the mosque is taking place," Archbishop Timothy Dolan said after a meeting with Gov. David Paterson about the issue.
Critics say the building is too close to where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001 and killed nearly 2,800 people. Supporters say religious freedom should be protected. Dolan said both sides have legitimate stances.
"I sure don't have strong feelings on where the mosque should ultimately be," he said during a brief news conference after meeting with the governor.
They spoke about how religion can be brought to bear on the debate over the proposal in an effort to encourage reconciliation and community, rather than divisiveness, Dolan said, and expressed willingness to be part of the dialogue if asked.
"Do I have any concrete plans or steps? Nope," he said.
New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents the lower Manhattan district where ground zero is, suggested Tuesday that Islamic leaders should move the proposed mosque. Paterson has made the same point.
Organizers have the right to build the center at a building two blocks from ground zero but should be open to compromise, Silver said.
"In the spirit of living with others, they should be cognizant of the feelings of others and try to find a location that doesn't engender the deep feelings the currently exist about this site," Silver said.
"I think the sponsors should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that's been created and look to compromise," he added.
The developer, meanwhile, was expected to attend a dinner Tuesday night hosted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spoken in support of the project. Bloomberg holds the dinner annually to observe Iftar, the daily meal in which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Paterson has yet to meet with anyone from the Cordoba Initiative, the project's organizer. Its co-founder, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is on a Mideast trip funded by the U.S. State Department. He alluded to the controversy at a dinner Sunday night for student leaders at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Manama, Bahrain.
"The fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success," he said.
"It is my hope that people will understand more. ... This is something we are doing for your generation."
Rauf also thanked President Barack Obama, who has said Muslims had the right to practice their religion and build the Islamic center in lower Manhattan. The president later said he wasn't endorsing the specifics of the plan.
"I'm grateful to President Obama for his support for the project," said Rauf.
The White House on Tuesday said that Obama would have no further comment on the issue and that the administration will not get involved in talks about relocating the facility. Republicans have vowed to make Obama's supportive comments a campaign issue in this fall's midterm elections.
Rauf, who has rarely spoken publicly about the project, said that he was leery of the media and that they are portraying a negative image of Muslims to the West. He also said he doesn't like Muslims portraying a bad image of the West to the Muslim world.
He said in an interview published Tuesday by the daily Bahraini newspaper Akhbar Al-Khaleej that the media had "succeeded in portraying stereotypical images, focusing on the negative and criticizing the other. ... We should be self-critical instead of focusing on criticizing the other. "
In a separate interview published Monday with another Bahrain newspaper, Al Wasat, Rauf said he was trying to get Islamic scholars to agree on laws that will encourage Muslims to be "more effective members of their communities."
He said Muslims can remain faithful and be engaged in the affairs of the countries where they live.
"I see that every religious community faces challenges, but the real challenge lies in keeping true to the core values of the faith and how to express these values in a specific time and place," he was quoted as telling the newspaper.
He added that he wanted to see Muslims in the U.S. have "complete nationalism" and fulfill their rights and duties to the larger community.
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