A group of religious and interfaith leaders issued a statement Wednesday, denouncing the "xenophobia and religious bigotry" behind arguments against the proposed mosque near the 9/11 site.
More than 40 Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders said they were deeply troubled by some of the opposition and how protesters have demonized all Muslims and exploited fear.
"We have witnessed this sinful corruption of religion across faith traditions throughout history and must condemn it without equivocation whenever or wherever it occurs," the religious leaders wrote in their statement. "However, we fail to honor those murdered on that awful day – including Muslim Americans killed in the Twin Towers and Pentagon – by betraying our nation's historic commitment to religious liberty, fueling ugly stereotypes about Islam and demeaning the vast majority of Muslims committed to peace."
The religious leaders went further to argue that the planned $100 million mosque and community center – which will be located two blocks from the site where the World Trade Center came down on Sept. 11, 2001, when two airplanes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into it – will appropriately foster dialogue and break down barriers.
"We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion and peace by associating all Muslims with violent extremism," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches. "This center will reflect not only the best of Islam, but the enduring hope that Christians, Jews and Muslims can together find common ground in addressing the most urgent challenges of our time."
Called the Park 51 project, the proposed 13-story community center will include fitness facilities, education programs, meditation rooms and a mosque. The Cordoba Initiative, a Muslim outreach group, is spearheading the project.
Though the group has promoted the center as part of efforts to improve Muslim-West relations and to promote tolerance and pluralism, the project has drawn fierce opposition, with families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks accusing the Muslim group of insensitivity.
Michael Youssef, founder of Evangelical Anglican Church of the Apostles and Leading the Way ministry, contends that the mosque is part of Islam's overall goal to dominate the world.
"Most Westerners do not understand that Islam is not a religion in their true understanding of what the word means," he argued Tuesday. "Islam is a political and social ideology that will never submit to a secular form of government. Islamists will wait until such time as they are able to transform societies into Sharia-dominated ones, giving citizens a Taliban-type government."
Youssef, who has lived in Egypt and Lebanon, urged the public to be wary of the language that Muslim leaders behind the project are using, such as "tolerance" and "freedom of religion," to gain approval.
"Islamic and Arabic media outlets are triumphantly, if not blatantly, saying that Islam is a superior religion, therefore it can build a mosque anywhere in the world, and the infidels need to shut up and accept it," he stated bluntly.
"When you realize that in Saudi Arabia, the most likely bank rollers of the $100 million project, forbids even Christian foreigners to worship in their own homes, you will soon realize the contempt they hold for the West in general and Christians in particular."
Amid the debates, the group of over 40 religious leaders is hoping that the "shrill voices of division" will be drowned out and that Americans will embrace the biblical call to "love the stranger."
Faithful America, an online community of more than 100,000 people of faith, is also standing with the American Muslim community and asking Americans to sign a petition to "honor the many contributions of American Muslims toward global peace."
"[A] wave of anti-Muslim sentiment is sweeping the country. Some are even trying to prevent Muslims from exercising their right to worship freely. Our country is better than that. Our faiths are better than that," Faithful America states.
Youssef, meanwhile, has accused the "leftists" in the media of playing down Muslim ideology and presenting Islamists as peace lovers.
"This naivety and ignorance on the part of the Left is like Christmas in July for Muslim leaders. The Islamists and Jihadists are laughing in their sleeves at such stupidity, but they will soon laugh aloud if Muslims become the majority in these countries. Ironically, the Jihadists first victims will be the leftists, the socialists and the godless," he warned.
Developers of the Park 51 project recently rejected Gov. David Paterson's offer to relocate the Muslim community center. Paterson volunteered another site on state owned property for the center. Turning down the offer, mosque developer Sharif El-Gamal of Soho Properties told NY1 News that they selected the current site intentionally.
"This has always been about serving Lower Manhattan," he said.
On the Web: Full statement with signatories