NEW YORK - The leading Jewish civil rights group in the U.S. has come out against the planned mosque and Islamic community center near the World Trade Center's ground zero terror attack site, saying the location is "counterproductive to the healing process."
The Anti-Defamation League said it rejects any opposition to the center based on bigotry and acknowledged that the group behind the plan, the Cordoba Initiative, has the legal right to build at the site. But the ADL said "some legitimate questions have been raised" about funding and possible ties with "groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values."
"Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right," the ADL said in a statement. "In our judgment, building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain - unnecessarily - and that is not right."
The mosque and community center would be located two blocks from the lower Manhattan site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. SoHo Properties, a partner in the effort, purchased the property for nearly $5 million. Early plans call for a 13-story, $100 million Islamic center, of which the mosque would be a part.
The director of the Cordoba Initiative, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was in Malaysia, where the group has offices, on Friday and could not be reached. His wife, Daisy Khan, who is a partner in the project, said the center will be a space for moderate Muslim voices. She noted Cordoba had previously worked with the ADL to fight prejudice against Jews and Muslims.
"We believe it will be a place where the counter-momentum against extremism will begin," Khan said Friday. "We are committed to peace."
Based in New York, Cordoba aims to improve relations between Islam and the West by hosting leadership conferences for young American Muslims, and organizing programs on Arab-Jewish relations, building civil society in the Muslim world and empowering Muslim women.
Sharif El-Gamal, the CEO of SoHo Properties, has said the project's backers were committed to transparency and would work with the attorney general's watchdog Charities Bureau. The planned center has been renamed Park51 to reflect the broad scope of its programs, modeled on the YMCA or Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.
A city community board voted overwhelmingly last spring to back the project even as it sparked emotional protest from some local residents and relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the mosque's construction. Disagreement over the project has become a national issue, drawing opposition from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin, among others.
The ADL, one of the most prominent groups in American Jewish life, is known for its advocacy of religious freedom and interfaith harmony. Its position on the mosque was met with shock and condemnation by several groups.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, the dovish, pro-Israel group, said he would hope ADL would be at the forefront in defending the freedom of a religious minority, "rather than casting aspersions on its funders and giving in to the fear-mongerers."
The Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington advocacy group, said he read the ADL statement "with a great deal of sorrow."
"As an organization that for nearly 100 years has helped set the standard for fighting defamation and securing justice and fair treatment for all, it is disappointing to see the ADL arrived at this conclusion," Gaddy said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged ADL to retract its statement.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, defended his position.
In a phone interview, he compared the idea of a mosque near ground zero to the Roman Catholic Carmelite nuns who had a convent at the Auschwitz death camp. In 1993, Pope John Paul II responded to Jewish protests by ordering the nuns to move.
"We're saying if your purpose is to heal differences, it's the wrong place," Foxman said of the mosque. "Don't do it. The symbolism is wrong."
Cordoba Initiative: http://www.cordobainitiative.org
ADL statement: http://www.adl.org/PresRele/CvlRt_32/5820_32.htm
Associated Press Writer Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.