NEW YORK (AFP)---Several hundred protesters staged rival demonstrations Sunday for and against plans to build a mosque near the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks, some brandishing signs against Islam and others denouncing religious bigotry.
Though small in scale, the street protests reflect an intensifying national debate that has exposed a raw nerve over US attitudes toward Islam nearly nine years after Al-Qaeda militants flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the mosque, the city council has approved the project for a community center, and President Barack Obama has invoked the constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.
But 61 percent of Americans disapprove of it, and opposition to the mosque has been taken up with fervor by conservative politicians like former Republican lawmaker Newt Gingrich who likened it to building a Nazi site next to the Holocaust memorial.
Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which is behind the proposed Islamic community center and mosque, said Muslims are concerned about the tone of the debate.
"Because this is like a metastasized anti-Semitism. That's what we feel right now. It's not even Islamophobia, it's beyond Islamophobia. It's hate of Muslims. And we are deeply concerned," she said in an interview on ABC's "This Week" program.
Opponents have pressed for the community center's organizers to move to another location further from 'Ground Zero' in deference to the charged public sentiment. New York Governor David Patterson has even offered state land for an alternate site.
Karen Hughes, a former White House communications director who had urged then-president George W. Bush to visit a mosque shortly after the 9/11 attacks to reassure Muslims, Sunday urged Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his congregation to choose another site.
Writing in the Washington Post, she said the debate was "less about our freedom of religion than about the common sense and uncommon courtesy sometimes required to come together as Americans."
Khan, who is married to the imam, said any decision to move from the privately owned site had to be carefully weighed.
"And we have to be cognizant that we also have a constitutional right. We have the Muslim community around the nation that we have to be concerned about, and we have to worry about the extremists as well, because they are seizing this moment," she said.
Meanwhile, protesters from one side and the other began gathering in lower Manhattan under a fine rain Sunday morning, taking up positions about 100 meters and two streets away from each other, but also worlds apart.
"Don't let Islam mark a victory with a Mosque," said a banner raised by protesters who gathered at the corner of the site of the proposed Islamic center, on a privately owned lot two blocks from "Ground Zero," the epicenter of the September 11 attacks.
"You can build a Mosque at Ground Zero when we can build a Synagogue in Mecca," said another placard.
A group of about 50 bikers in leather jackets roared in bearing the emblem of the New York Fire Department, many of whose members were killed during a doomed attempt to rescue people trapped inside the burning towers.
Joe O'Shay, a lawyer who wore a T-shirt covered with slogans against the mosque, tearfully said he had turned out to protest because "I am a New Yorker and I lost a nephew here."
Protesters waved American flags as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" blared from loudspeakers.
Organizers distributed signs with the inscription "Sharia" in bloodlike red letters.
Two streets away, a small crowd about the same size called for tolerance, their signs defending freedom of religion and pleading for acceptance of immigrants of all faiths.
Their signs said "Down with religious bigotry," "Bigotry is UnAmerican" and "Repudiate Islamophobia!"