Demonstrators on both sides at planned mosque site

East Village resident Matt Sky and Sayville

East Village resident Matt Sky and Sayville resident Rose Van Guilden argue about the location of the proposed Islamic Center. (Sept. 11, 2010) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

The dispute over a proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero erupted into competing rallies in lower Manhattan Saturday, with several thousand people waving flags, chanting slogans and cheering speakers two blocks away from each other.

Pro-mosque supporters accused their opponents of racism, bigotry and condemning all Muslims as terrorists. Anti-mosque supporters said the issue had nothing to do with bigotry and was about being sensitive to the wishes of relatives of 9/11 families who want the mosque in another site.

"As a Muslim I can tell you we are being treated like bogeymen," Imama Shamshad Ahmad said. "Muslims are being demonized and marginalized." He added that the pro-mosque supporters were "standing on the high moral ground."

But at the other demonstration, Geert Wilders, a politician from Holland who was billed as the rally's keynote speaker, said it was time to "draw a line here today at this sacred ground" by stopping the proposed mosque.

"Did America deserve this?" he asked, referring to the 9/11 attacks. "No. We don't deserve the mosque at Ground Zero either . . . In the name of freedom, no mosque here."

The rally in favor of the project started about 1 p.m., on Broadway near City Hall, followed two hours later by the rally against it on West Broadway. Sandwiched between the protests was the Park Place site of the proposed mosque.

Though the rallies were emotional, police reported no major disturbances or clashes. Police set up portable metal gates at both rallies to keep protesters contained.

Organizers of the mosque project say it is intended to build interfaith bridges and explain to Americans what mainstream Islam is really about, including a commitment to peace and abhorrence of terrorism.

Opponents contend the project is inappropriate and provocative because of its proximity to Ground Zero and the fact that the terrorists were Muslim.

Christina Regenhard, of Yonkers, whose cousin Christian, 28, died in the World Trade Center attack, said in an interview that the proposed mosque was "the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time. The right way to build a bridge is not to shove your religion and your culture down the throats of others. That is not a way to change hearts and minds."

But Enver Sulejman, 51, of Rochelle Park, N.J., said he thought opponents of the project were stereotyping Muslims. "Linking Islam with terrorism is ridiculous and that's what's going on," he said in an interview. "What went on with 9/11 has nothing to do with Islam. In any religion there are rotten people who do rotten things in the name of religion."

With Ted Phillips

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