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California interfaith leaders back 'ground zero' Islamic center

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Is America Islamophobic?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders urge Americans to rise above the shouting match
  • This "breaks the heart of God," says a Unitarian Universalist minister
  • Opponents say the new center is an affront to the victims of 9/11
  • Nationwide opposition to the proposed New York Islamic center is 68 percent

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- A group of 60 interfaith leaders in California called for Americans "to rise above the rancorous shouting match" as they spoke out Friday in favor of a controversial Islamic center near "ground zero" in New York.

They called for understanding and tolerance and said religious freedom, one of America's most cherished values, is at stake in the controversy that has gathered steam in the past few weeks.

"Such intolerance, in this country of all places, breaks my heart and I believe it breaks the heart of God," said the Rev. Anne Felton Hines of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

She joined voices with Roman Catholics, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Muslims and leaders of other faiths at a news conference held at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Among them was Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

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"I'd like to emphasize this is not an issue for the Muslims," Hathout said. "It is an issue for Americans who want America to be the way it was dreamed by its founders."

The New York Islamic center's leaders say they plan to build the $100 million, 13-story facility called Park51 -- formerly known as Cordoba House -- on property it already owns two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

Developer Sharif El-Gamal describes the project as an "Islamic community center" that would include a 500-seat performing arts center, a lecture hall, a swimming pool, a gym, a culinary school, a restaurant and a prayer space for Muslims.

But some New Yorkers oppose the project, saying that an Islamic center near the site of the attack by Islamic extremists that killed more than 2,700 people is a painful affront. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released August 11 showed nationwide opposition to the proposed facility at 68 percent.

The controversy swirling around the proposed center has pitted survivors and families of September 11 victims against each other. Current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is for it, but a past mayor, Rudy Giuliani is against.

Radio talk shows are abuzz with the topic and blogs have been filled with venomous comments about Muslims.

A new Time magazine cover story on the topic highlights how the controversy has brought new scrutiny to other examples of anti-Muslim protests happening around the country. It also discusses a new poll that shows that a growing number of Americans believe President Barack Obama is Muslim. The poll was taken before Obama voiced support for the Islamic center.

"The rhetoric against Muslim Americans -- namely, that they are a suspect community, or worse, enemies of the state; their religion is uncivilized and anti-American; they are deceitful; and they aim to destroy our culture and our constitution -- are replicas of attacks against other religious minorities in the past as well as current attacks against ethnic and racial minorities," the interfaith coalition said Friday.

"We Americans, whether Muslim or Christian, whether Jew or Hindu, whether of faith or no faith, were all attacked on 9/11 by terrorists who can only be described as criminals," it said.

"We oppose the exploitation of the pain and suffering of 9/11 by political opportunists. They only divide our country and undermine the principles of pluralism, religious freedom, and security by fostering hate based on fear."