After months of wrenching debate that tested the boundaries of religious tolerance in the United States, lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1 this week removed the final obstacle blocking the construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks.

The Board gained the approval of New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission, which unanimously voted not to extend landmark status to the Park Place building, where the mosque and community centre were planned.

In the absence of the landmark designation, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “There is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.”

Issuing a strong statement of support favouring the mosque’s promoters, the Cordoba Initiative, the Mayor added that the building was private property, and the owners had a right to use the building as a house of worship.

Fiercely debated issue

In May this year, the Community Board had fiercely debated but ultimately endorsed the plan to build a mosque on the site, by a vote of 29-to-1. The decision was attacked shortly thereafter by Tea Party leaders such as Mark Williams, who made disparaging remarks about Islam, terrorism and the purpose of having a mosque.

However even some with less extreme views had criticised the plans to build a mosque on Ground Zero. For example, media reports had quoted Rosemary Cain, whose son, a fireman, died in the attacks, as saying, “I think it’s despicable. That’s sacred ground. It’s a slap in the face. How could anybody give them permission to build a mosque there?” Similarly Bill Doyle, father of a 9/11 victim, reportedly said, “What I’m frightened about is that it’s almost going to be another protest zone — a meeting place for radicals.”

However, Mayor Bloomberg defended the plans for the mosque, noting that the World Trade Center site would forever hold a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers. “But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves — and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans — if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in Lower Manhattan,” he said.

Mr. Bloomberg also pointed out that there were many Muslims among those killed on 9/11 and “our Muslim neighbours grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans”. He said that if they treated Muslims differently than anyone else, New Yorkers would be betraying their values and playing into their enemies’ hands. “For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime... and it is critically important that we get it right,” he said.

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