WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate's senior Democrat broke with President Barack Obama on Monday over the proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque in New York City, with Senator Harry Reid saying it should be built elsewhere.
The project, planned near the "ground zero" site of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, has emerged as an emotional issue 2-1/2 months before U.S. congressional elections in which Republicans are trying to take back control of Congress from Obama's fellow Democrats. Reid is in a tight contest for re-election against a very conservative Republican challenger.
"The First Amendment (of the U.S. Constitution) protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
The projects backers vowed on Monday to press ahead with their plans and denied a report in Israeli newspaper Haaretz that they will scrap the $100 million project, which has generated fierce debate.
Sharif El-Gamal, the owner of the building where the Cordoba House would be located, said a report that the center would be relocated further from Ground Zero, reported in Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Monday, was false.
"Everything is on track and we are moving forward with the location," said El-Gamal, chief executive of Soho Properties, which owns the building.
Haaretz reported that leaders agreed to abandon the site to prevent an escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment.
The proposal, announced this spring, has caused an uproar among many New Yorkers, who feel the location of the center is insensitive to the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the September 11 attacks.
On Friday, the debate over the construction of the Muslim center intensified when President Barack Obama said he supported the right of Muslims to build there.
A day later, amid a political backlash, Obama said he was not commenting on "the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there." Instead, he said he was "commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."
The proposed 13-story building, which has gotten the go-ahead from a New York City agency, would include meeting rooms, a prayer space, an auditorium and swimming pool.
The families of some victims of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center have been vehemently opposed to the construction of a Muslim center so close to Ground Zero.
Close to 60 percent of Americans oppose the plan, although supporters say having the Islamic cultural center is a chance to promote understanding of the religion and begin healing nearly a decade after the attacks.
The site cleared a major political roadblock earlier this month, when the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to grant it special designation. The move means the existing building can be torn down and replaced by the 13-story community center, complete with a fitness center, conference room and artist studios.
The plain building as envisioned will not feature either minaret or dome or any other motif typically associated with mosques. Still, some oppose it being built while the buildings set to replace the World Trade Center have not been completed and the memorial planned for the site not yet open.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a strong proponent of the project, even as his approval ratings have taken a hit because of it. Some families of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks have also supported the project.
(Reporting by Karen Ioffee and Richard Cowan; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman)