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Coalition backs Islamic center near Ground Zero

A coalition of civil rights and religious groups, as well as families of 9/11 victims, backed the proposed Islamic community center in Manhattan Wednesday and said they plan a candlelight vigil on the eve of next months' anniversary of the terror attacks.

The venue for the Sept. 10 vigil, aimed at making a statement about equality and religious freedom, has not been decided but organizers hope to draw hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters.

In a related development Wednesday, Sharif El-Gamal, the real estate developer who owns the Park Place building two blocks north of Ground Zero slated for the center, said several financial institutions have shown interest in financing the estimated $100 million project.

"We are very confident that we will be able to arrange the right mix of borrowing and private investment, which will enable us to build this extraordinary facility," said El-Gamal, without being specific.

Support for El-Gamal and the project came during a news conference Wednesday of three dozen groups that have come together to form the New Coalition Supporting Religious Freedom.

"We are committed to resisting the efforts to push Park51 out of downtown and we reject the refrain of 'freedom of religion, but not in my backyard,' " said Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, referring to the project.

Noting the NYCLU lost one of its members in the attack on the Twin Towers, Lieberman acknowledged the pain of those who suffered.

"But we unequivocally reject the political posturing, the fearmongering and crude stereotyping that seeks to demonize a project whose goal is to build bridges among the faiths . . . simply because it contains a place for Muslims to worship," she said at the news conference.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a critic of the Islamic center's location two blocks from Ground Zero, said arguments about religious freedom missed the point. "The whole issue of religious freedom is a phony issue," he told Newsday Wednesday.

King said no one questioned Park51 organizers' right to build a center, but rather their sense of decency in not being sensitive to feelings of Sept. 11 victims' families.

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