NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York political leaders sought on Tuesday to defuse tension over a proposed Muslim cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site, with the governor criticizing the tone of some opponents' rhetoric and the mayor hosting a Muslim ceremony.
Muslims hoping to build the $100 million cultural center and mosque have met fierce opposition from conservative politicians and those who call it offensive to families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda militants in 2001.
The debate over putting the center so close to what is now called Ground Zero has turned national ahead of November elections as Republicans seek to wrest control of Congress from Democrats.
Republican politicians largely oppose the project, a sentiment shared by at least 60 percent of Americans, according to polls.
Some commentators have raised concern the opposition could be providing a propaganda victory to extremists in the Muslim world who preach that the United State hates Islam.
Democratic Governor David Paterson criticized mosque opponents for tolerating what he called ignorance and stereotypes by more strident foes who liken all of Islam to the al Qaeda suicide hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center.
"People can't hear each other anymore," Paterson told a news conference. "I find it heart-wrenching. I hate to see New Yorkers squaring off against each other."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the project on grounds of religious freedom. He was hosting his annual iftar -- the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast -- with two of the project's leaders on the guest list.
Over the weekend, supporters and opponents of the project rallied near Ground Zero but were kept apart by police.
More than 40 religious and civic groups -- including one group of families whose relatives died on September 11 -- announced the formation of a coalition on Tuesday to push back against opposition to the mosque.
The coalition called New York Neighbors for American Values planned to introduce its campaign formally on Wednesday.
"We stand together today to reject the crude stereotypes meant to frighten and divide us," the coalition said.
Paterson, who will leave office at the end of the year, has offered himself as a peacemaker seeking to find an alternate site. He met on Tuesday with religious leaders, including New York Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, to find a solution to the controversy.
Developers of the mosque have said they want to remain at the proposed location, partly because they believe moving the project would be a concession to what they consider religious intolerance.