NEW YORK (AP) - The chairwoman of the community board that voted for an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero said she believes adding an interfaith dimension would help unite people, saying a nondenominational chapel built at the Pentagon as part of a Sept. 11 memorial did just that.
Julie Menin of Manhattan Community Board 1 reiterated Monday that she supports the project going up in the proposed location two blocks from the World Trade Center site, and that it contain a mosque as developers plan. But she suggested another section of the community center be turned into an interfaith, nondenominational area for people of all religious backgrounds.
"What it could do is it could really get to the heart of the matter of making this project one that brings people together," she said.
Community Board 1 had voted overwhelmingly in May to support the Islamic center. Opponents argue it's insensitive to families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close to where Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center, while proponents support it as a reflection of religious freedom and diversity.
Menin said that she encouraged the project's organizers at the time to step back, reach out to Sept. 11 families and even hold a town hall meeting to discuss the issue, but that they made their own decisions on how to proceed.
Now, she said, "unfortunately what has happened is people's views have become hardened."
Menin, who first outlined her idea in an opinion piece in New York's Daily News, pointed to the interfaith chapel at the Pentagon, which was built without controversy and is used by people of many faiths.
She acknowledged that there would always be people who opposed the project, but that adding the interfaith center could be an opportunity "to try to move beyond dissention and try to bring people together."
The imam at the head of the project said the opposition is closely linked to the November elections.
"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was quoted by the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National in an interview as part of his State Department-funded trip in the Persian Gulf region.
He added that he trusted the American people to follow the nation's constitutional principles.
"The fact of the matter is the local community board recognizes and understands the vision, the politicians in New York understand the vision, and there is broad-based support for these objectives," he said.
"As it is, my trust and conviction in the wisdom of the American people and political leadership and the American people at large is that they will act in accordance with the highest principles of our constitution and the fundamental American belief in justice and protection of everybody's rights."