NEW YORK (Reuters) - Families of September 11 victims are arguing whether to call a truce on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the United States as debate rages over plans for a Muslim center near the World Trade Center site.
The Muslim cleric leading the project reasserted on Tuesday that organizers would proceed with the Cordoba House center.
“More important, we are doing so with the support of the downtown community, government at all levels and leaders from across the religious spectrum, who will be our partners,” Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi Muslim imam, wrote in The New York Times.
Critics say the planned location two blocks from Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan is insensitive, while supporters say politicians have wrongly commandeered the emotionally charged debate before U.S. congressional elections on November 2.
Rallies for and against the cultural center and mosque are set for Saturday in New York after a memorial ceremony at the site known as Ground Zero for the 2,752 people killed when al Qaeda Islamist militants flew hijacked planes into the twin towers nine years ago.
Some September 11 families and advocacy groups have said it is “inappropriate and disrespectful” for rallies over the Islamic center to be held on the anniversary of the attacks.
“Our desire ... is simply to preserve 9/11 for appropriate remembrance and reflection,” some September 11 community leaders said in a letter to rally organizers. “We do not believe that protest rallies of this nature should take place on such a sacred day and in such close proximity to Ground Zero.”
After the official memorial ceremony on Saturday morning, opponents of the Muslim center, led by the Stop Islamization of America group, plan to gather near the planned center’s site.
“Many 9/11 families do not agree with attempting to stop this demonstration -- and the majority of our group supports the purpose and principles of this rally,” said the 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims group.
“For many family members, the looming, unresolved mosque controversy has made the upcoming September 11th Anniversary even more upsetting and troubling,” they said. “On 9/11, as the world is focusing on Ground Zero, families want to be able to raise their voices and say to the world that this is wrong.”
Speakers at the protest against the center are due to include former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and lawmaker Geert Wilders, who heads the right-leaning and anti-immigration Freedom Party in the Netherlands.
U.S. President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg say they support the right of Muslims to build the center.
But as Republicans seek to wrest control of Congress from Democrats in November, some politicians from both sides oppose the project -- a sentiment shared by at least 60 percent of Americans, according to opinion polls.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center plans a rival march on Saturday “against anti-Islamic bigotry and racism.”
“People of courage, compassion and peace will want an Islamic Community Center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. Together we can overcome violence and hatred if we reach out to each other and unite,” Clark said.
The leaders of more than 55 mosques and Islamic organizations in New York said they supported the request by some September 11 groups not to hold rallies on Saturday and would focus instead on personal or communal prayer and reflection.
The debate over the Muslim center has spurred wider discussion about Islam and the United States.