Dueling protests over New York mosque near Ground Zero
Thousands of people took to the streets Saturday here in dueling protests over building a mosque close to Ground Zero, triggering noisy sidewalk arguments closely watched by a tight police guard.
About 1,500 people first marched in favor of a Muslim organization's right to build a Muslim community center two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood until it was destroyed in the 9/11 terror strikes.
But later about 2,000 people gathered close by for a separate rally against the mosque, which was taking place just hours after the solemn ceremonies to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
They were addressed by Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders who flew from The Netherlands to urge the crowd: "This is where we have draw the line."
"We must never give a free hand to those who want to subjugate us," Wilders added. "Draw this line so that New York... will never become New Mecca."
Mounted police and dog handlers joined cops posted on every corner to separate the rallies which attracted a volatile mix of people, from uniformed marines to peace activists, Buddhists and even a troop of Hell's Angels.
The two groups were kept penned in at their rally sites, but even so noisy arguments broke out on the sidewalks between those on either side of the increasingly polarized debate.
As a precaution, police barricaded the street outside the site of proposed cultural center, now the focus for angry debate about the place of Muslims in US society nearly a decade after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Supporters of the project -- mostly non-Muslim activists -- said opposition was based on anti-Muslim bigotry.
"Stop the racist war against Muslim people," one placard read.
"People are afraid because there is a campaign against Muslims in our country," said peace activist Jane Toby, 70.
The center -- due to be built on the site of a derelict clothing store with dedicated prayer rooms for Muslims, Jews and Christians -- was proposed by a well-known progressive imam from New York.
He says he aims to give Islam a new face in the United States, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had warmly endorsed the idea.
Yet polls show a vast majority of Americans and New Yorkers want the center to be built further away from Ground Zero, where Al-Qaeda militants plowed hijacked planes into the Twin Towers.
Opposition began among relatives of the almost 3,000 people killed on 9/11 have said a Muslim presence is not appropriate near what they term "sacred" ground.
"It's a victory mosque they want to build," New Yorker John told AFP, refusing to give his full name. "If they want to build bridges then they should listen to the people and move.
"On 9/11 Muslims were dancing in the streets. The peaceful ones need to speak up if they're American."
Suvi, wearing a T-shirt daubed with the words "American Patriot, agreed, saying: "If we don't do something now. Our country is gone. There's too much craziness going on and people are starting to take notice."
Criticism has gradually morphed into a national political protest led by ultra-conservative radio hosts and activists already at the front line of the rightwing Tea Party movement.
The issue was also thrust into the forefront by a Florida pastor, who triggered an international storm of protest this week when he threatened to burn a pile of Korans to mark the 9/11 anniversary.
He agreed to call off the event claiming he had won assurances from imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the mosque project, that he would move the proposed building.
Jones arrived in New York late Friday hoping to meet Rauf for talks, after the imam denied any such deal had been struck.
Another set of pastors Saturday preached outside the mosque site denouncing Islam and claiming the center would amount to conquest of America.
"Islam takes life and enslaves it," one preacher screamed, sweat pouring down his face.
One man was walking through the crowds offering pages of the Koran to use as toilet paper.
But a supporter of the mosque project, bicycle courier Craig Thorpe, said Islam should not be demonized. "I see Catholic churches around here, Protestant churches, a synagogue, but why shouldn't Muslims be allowed to build too? It's crazy."
© 2010 AFP