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Wounded NY cabbie says religion had role in attack

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Muslim taxi driver wounded in a stabbing said Thursday he believed he was attacked because of his religion but did not blame the public furor over a proposed Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site.

Ahmed Sharif, a 43-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant, said a passenger in his cab Tuesday asked if he was Muslim and celebrated Ramadan and then slashed his neck, face and shoulders.

Sharif, who was treated at a hospital for his wounds, met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg Thursday and described the attack at a news conference at City Hall.

“Of course it was for my religion,” he said of the incident. But asked if he thought it was related to the mosque debate, he said: “No, we didn’t talk about the mosque.”

The attack came amid increasingly heated debate over a proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks that toppled the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people.

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Opponents say the plan is insensitive to families of the victims of the al Qaeda suicide hijackers and the center could foster religious extremism.

Supporters, who include the mayor and President Barack Obama, back the proposal on grounds of religious freedom and tolerance. The debate has turned national ahead of November elections, as Republicans seek to wrest control of Congress from Democrats.

Sharif said sometimes he feels “very unsafe” driving a taxi, which he has done in New York for 15 years.

After he, his wife and their four children met with the mayor, he said: “Now I feel a little better than before.”

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“Our mayor is continuing to help and to make sure I’m safe, that my family is safe,” he said.

New York is home to some 800,000 Muslims, about 10 percent of the population, and there are about 100 mosques throughout its five boroughs. One, the Masjid Manhattan, is four blocks from the World Trade Center site known as Ground Zero.

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About half the city’s cab drivers are Muslim, according to the head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who said the emotionally charged controversy helped fuel the violence.

“The rhetoric has risen to such a point that violence was inevitable,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the alliance. “Fearmongering leads to hate crimes. Fear-mongering is at the heart of what happened to Ahmed Sharif.”

Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, which was the city’s first building erected specifically to house a mosque, said: “When the incident happened two days ago it created worries and fear among the Muslim community.”

“It really created a lot of tension, fear, worry that this will happen to them ... especially the women who symbolize Islam through their dress. It’s very, very scary, but we are working very closely with law enforcement,” he said.

Suspect Michael Enright, 21, was charged with attempted murder as a hate crime, assault and criminal possession of a weapon, police said. They also said he was drunk when he was arrested near the scene of the attack in midtown Manhattan.

New York Governor David Paterson called for calm this week amid the growing acrimony between opponents and supporters of the proposed Islamic center.

Wednesday, more than 40 religious and civic groups announced a coalition in support of the project. The coalition included some families of September 11 victims. Other relatives of victims have been prominent among the center’s critics,