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Simon Wiesenthal Center not opposed in principle to 'ground zero mosque'

August 10, 2010 |  5:00 am

Cordoba

The controversy over a planned Islamic mosque and cultural center near the site of the former World Trade Center has stirred a lot of impassioned voices in opposition to the facility, which some see as an affront to those who died in the 9/11 attacks.

But one organization that is not opposed to the new structure -- at least not in principle -- is the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish human rights group based in Los Angeles.

The Wiesenthal Center is the organization behind the Museum of Tolerance, which has locations in L.A. and a new branch in New York. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in an interview that his organization is not going to oppose the Cordoba House, which is the name of the planned Islamic cultural facility.

"The families of the victims, they should have the dominant say in this," said Hier. "If they develop a consensus that this is a good idea, then we don't oppose that at all. Rather than have political leaders decide on this, the most important voice should be the families of victims."

Hier, however, expressed some personal reservations about the location of the planned Cordoba House.

"If after World War II, the German government had created a German cultural center across the street from Auschwitz, it would have been vehemently opposed by families of victims because it would be too much to bear," he said.

"Ground zero is the site of one of the greatest atrocities ever committed on U.S. soil. It may be too much to bear for families of those who were murdered."

The Wiesenthal Center's official position differs somewhat from quotes attributed to its executive director, Rabbi Meyer May, in a recent article in Crain's New York Business

The article quotes May as saying that the designated location is "insensitive," and implies that the center is opposed to the Cordoba House.

A spokeswoman for the Simon Wiesenthal Center said May was sick and unavailable for comment.

The backers of the Cordoba House are billing it as a gathering place of inter-community meetings and other cultural events. Nicknamed by some of its detractors as the "ground zero mosque," the facility is expected to contain a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores and more.

Last week, the backers of the Cordoba House won a crucial victory when New York's Landmarks Preservation Committee voted against granting historic protection to the facility where the Islamic center is expected to be built. (The structure was once a Burlington Coat Factory.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has publicly supported the construction of the new center. In a speech given shortly after the committee's decision, he emphasized that "Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans."

He said that it "would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else."

Organizers of the Cordoba House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Among the key backers are Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, of the Cordoba Initiative, and Sharif El-Gamal, the head of New York's Soho Properties.

Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for mayor, has publicly opposed the project and has called for more clarity surrounding the group's intentions.

-- David Ng

Photo: the site for the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in downtown Manhattan. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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