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Grant Request Revives Mosque Controversy

Grant Request Revives Mosque Controversy

Application for $5 million from federal fund decried as affront by critics, but board member says it will be decided strictly by grant criteria Jewish groups mostly silent on issue.

News that the organization planning an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero has applied for $5 million in federal recovery funds for programming has reawakened a controversy that largely fell silent months ago.

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Rep. Pete King, a Long Island Republican, called the request for funds from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation insensitive.

“It goes entirely against the spirit of the fund,” King said, according to the network’s website. “It’s an affront to the memory of all those who were murdered on 9/11. There are so many worthwhile projects in Lower Manhattan. This shows a gross insensitivity to the most fundamental feelings of New Yorkers and to those murdered on 9/11 it is a slap in the face that is a terrible insult.”

The Cordoba House-Park51 project, spearheaded by Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, requested the funds last month, as first reported Monday by the website The Daily Beast. Imam Rauf has been involved in interfaith programs with Jewish organizations over many years but has been criticized for some of his public comments, such as declining in a radio interview to call Hamas a terrorist group.

Khan did not return a call to her office on Tuesday.

The cultural center would include a mosque, meeting rooms, auditorium and other facilities two blocks north of the site of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.

New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined in August to designate protected status to the 19th-century former Burlington Coat Factory building on Park Place, which was damaged by airplane debris during the attack on the Twin Towers. That cleared the last legal hurdle toward building the center, although the developer has yet to raise the more than $100 million needed to build the facility, which has been said to emulate a Jewish community center with ethnic-oriented programming and religious space but open to all area residents.

Opponents, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and political candidates such as Rick Lazio, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and Michael Grimm, who won a House seat on Staten Island this month, have called on the developers to house the cultural center elsewhere in deference to the families of 9/11 victims.

Jewish organizations largely stayed out of the fray until last summer when Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, came out in opposition, likening the center’s situation to the Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz, which the ADL successfully opposed in 1984. The Simon Wiesenthal Center joined the ADL in arguing that the feelings of families of the 9/11 victims should be paramount.

In response, the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Community Relations Council of New York supported the Cordoba Initiative’s right to build the center, while calling on the group to be transparent about funding sources and to fully denounce terrorism.

This week, three of the groups declined to comment on news of the grant request.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center reiterated that group’s earlier position but did not oppose the grant.

“We feel the people who need to be heard first and foremost are the families of victims,” he said. “If they feel it’s an appropriate place to be built, there is no reason they shouldn’t go for the funding.”

He added, “Obviously this has touched a nerve, and it’s too bad. For someone who is so experienced in interfaith dialogue, if [Imam Rauf] had done some outreach over the last few years maybe this could have been avoided.”

Said conservative blogger and staunch Park51 critic Pamela Geller: “It’s an outrage. I’m sure that we will be protesting en masse. The idea that we would be underwriting a 15-story mega-mosque at a building destroyed on 9/11 … reveals the radical Imam’s contempt for the American people and their pain.”

The application is for part of a $17 million pool to be dispensed by LMDC for cultural and community enhancement projects that revitalize the area affected by 9/11. It is the third and possibly final round of such grants.

Previous grants provided $34 million to various museums and other nonprofit cultural institutions in the area in 2004 and $45 million in community enhancements in 2006, including $4.5 million to area public schools and $5 million for hospitals, according to Julie Menin, a board member of the corporation and chair of Community Board 1.

In the present round of grants, 255 organizations have requested $170 million, far more than the available funds. A decision on the allocations is expected early next year.

“The funds will go to a number of nonprofit organizations that have meritorious proposals, with a minimum [grant] of $100,000 and a maximum of $1 million,” Menin told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “It’s going to be a very competitive process.”

As a member of the panel that will vote on the proposals, Menin declined to comment on any particular grant and the potential impact of the controversy surrounding the Park51 site on the application process.

“As always we will vet every application thoroughly,” she said. “Every application has to meet the baseline eligibility requirements.”

The vetting process, she said, includes site visits and assessments of financial track records or, in the case of new organizations, the group’s financial viability.

The Cordoba Initiative, in the early stage of fundraising, has less than $20,000 in the bank, according to the Daily Beast report.

A statement by the Park51 developer, Sharif el-Gamal, published in The New York Times Tuesday, said the grant money, if awarded, would fund domestic-violence prevention programs, language classes, exhibitions and other services at the center, which will employ 150 people.

Geller noted that Imam Rauf has refused to publicly engage in a debate about the center and his choice of location. “For him, interfaith dialogue goes one way,” she said.

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