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Mosque Project Near NYC's Ground Zero Tests U.S. Freedoms, Bloomberg Says

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that to deny Muslims the right to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site would undermine America’s values and damage its image.

“We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims,” he said in remarks last night to guests at his annual Iftar dinner, in which Muslims break their daily dawn-to-sunset fast during the month of Ramadan. “We would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam.”

The guest list for the dinner at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s ceremonial residence, included Talat Hamdani, a Muslim who lost her son in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Other invitees included Sharif el-Gamal, developer of the lower Manhattan center that would include a mosque, and Daisy Khan, who co-founded its sponsoring group, the Cordoba Institute, with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, its spiritual leader.

The proposed center has ignited demonstrations both for and against it. It also has drawn opposition from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The two Republicans have said its placement near the site of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history would be inappropriate.

Lazio’s Accusations

Rick Lazio, a former U.S. congressman seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, has televised campaign commercials describing Rauf as “terrorist-sympathizing.”

Bloomberg, 68, who is unaffiliated and ran on the Republican and Independence Party lines, has supported the plan in several statements, a position that has set him apart from other elected officials in New York.

Governor David Paterson agreed the group had a right to build there while preferring that it move farther away.

“We’re making an appeal, we’re not telling anyone what to do with their rights,” Paterson said yesterday, hours after meeting Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York about ways to reduce the rancor over the issue.

“What we do not need are protests, but promoters of dialogue,” Dolan told reporters.

Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the state Assembly whose district includes the World Trade Center site, though not the proposed mosque’s location, said Cordoba Institute should voluntarily abandon the project “in the spirit of living with others” and “find a location that doesn’t engender the deep feelings that currently exist about this site.”

Mosque Already There

Such a compromise wouldn’t end the dispute, Bloomberg told his guests last night. “The question will then become, how big should the ‘no-mosque zone’ be around the World Trade Center site? There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it be moved?”

He added, “If we say that a mosque and community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.”

The mosque debate “cuts to the core of who we are as a city and a country,” Bloomberg said, adding that people “of goodwill” are on both sides. “The only question we face is: How do we honor that hallowed ground?”

Call for ‘Courage’

The issue presents “a test of our commitment to American values,” he said. “We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.”

About 95 guests attended the dinner, which included salad, hummus, tomato soup, lamb kebab, sponge cake and ice cream.

Rauf, 62, who was born in Kuwait, has lived in the U.S. for 45 years and led a mosque about 12 blocks from the World Trade Center site for about 25 years. In 1997 he started the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which describes itself as building bridges between Muslims and Americans of other faiths.

Rauf, who is abroad on a trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department, has acted as a goodwill emissary on behalf of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Plans for the center include a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, restaurants, bookstores and space for art exhibitions, according to his organization’s website.

‘Important Speech’

“It was an extremely important speech in defense of our deep American values,” Khan said afterward. “He spoke to the constitutional principles of religious freedom and the power of pluralism in America and their relationship to our foreign policy and national security.”

The Cordoba Institute, which describes itself as an ecumenical organization, has yet to raise the $100 million it says it needs to develop the site, a long-vacant 152-year-old lower Manhattan building on Park Place, formerly a Burlington Coat Factory department store.

The project received a boost Aug. 3 when the city Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled that the building didn’t qualify for protected status, and could be redeveloped. The site already functions as a mosque, with religious services attended by dozens of Muslims.

The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Goldman in New York at hgoldman@bloomberg.net

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