NEW YORK (Reuters) – Muslims in lower Manhattan who have prayed in a crowded basement or in the streets say they are not looking for confrontation with opponents of a new mosque. They simply need the space.
Some New Yorkers traumatized by the September 11, 2001 attacks have emotionally opposed a proposed Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Republican politicians seeking to wrest control of Congress from Democrats in November elections have seized on the issue.
The controversy has sucked in President Barack Obama and stirred debate about the meaning of religious freedom in a nation founded in part on that principle. Competing rallies for and against the Muslim project are planned to mark this year's ninth anniversary of the attacks.
Stuck in the middle are Muslims who work in downtown Manhattan and need a place for daily prayers.
"You know how many Muslims are in this area? On Friday the street used to be packed, and we had a pass from the police to block the streets," said Saad Madaha, 32, a consultant originally from Ghana who prays at Masjid Manhattan in a narrow basement beneath a night club.
"I would like to see a mosque that looks more like a mosque. I would like to go and pray and have full concentration in my prayers and not have music bashing me in my head."
The Masjid Manhattan, one of two mosques in the area, is four blocks from the World Trade Center but has gone largely unnoticed. A door with a modest sign "MASJID" -- Arabic for mosque -- leads from the sidewalk to the prayer space below.
The proposed Cordoba House, which has won local government approval, would not look like a traditional mosque either. The 13-story glass and steel tower would have straight lines, 90 degree angles and no crescent moon and star on the facade.
Modeled after a typical Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) facility, it would include an auditorium, swimming pool and meeting rooms in addition to a prayer space. Organizers say they oppose Islamist extremism.
"WE WANT TO PRAY PEACEFULLY"
Critics contend the center is insensitive to the families of the nearly 3,000 people who died on September 11, 2001, when al Qaeda hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Some Muslims say they understand why people might be upset and support an attempt by Governor David Paterson to move the project to a less emotionally-charged location.
"We need mosques, but anywhere but Ground Zero. It's going to be a problem all the time," said Sheikh Hossein, 42, an immigrant from Bangladesh.
"We want to pray peacefully. I don't want to pray and fight somebody else over the location. If this mosque is built here, every time there is terrorism, they are going to blame us," he said.
Others like Madaha say relocation would be an insult. "If they move it, to me, it's a slap on religion," he said.
Peter Awn, a professor of Islamic religion at Columbia University, said a study he was part of found Muslims in New York rarely worshiped in their neighborhoods.
Downtown Manhattan suits their needs because it is well connected by public transportation and has a large concentration of jobs, for example, in the Wall Street area.
"The downtown place is perfect because it would be a hub for people in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and if you work downtown it's a great place to pop in for noon prayers if you are observant," Awn said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Alan Elsner)