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Islamic center near ground zero opens its doors

NEW YORK (AP) — The developer of an Islamic cultural center near the site of the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center says the biggest error on the project was not involving the families of 9/11 victims from the start.

"We made incredible mistakes," Sharif El-Gamal told The Associated Press in an interview in his Manhattan office.

The Park51 Islamic community center — at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site — opened to the public Wednesday night with a photo exhibit of New York children representing 160 ethnicities.

The Park51 building includes a mosque that has been open for two years. El-Gamal said the overall center is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he lives.

"I wanted my daughter to learn how to swim, so I took her to the JCC," said the Brooklyn-born Muslim. "And when I walked in, I said, 'Wow. This is great.'"

The project has drawn criticism from opponents who say they don't want a Muslim prayer space near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The center is open to all faiths and will include a 9/11 memorial, El-Gamal said. He called opposition to the center — which prompted one of the most virulent national discussions about Islam and freedom of speech and religion since Sept. 11 — part of a "campaign against Muslims."

Last year, street clashes in view of the trade center site pitted supporters against opponents of the center.

When the center was first envisioned, several years ago, activist Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, played a major, vocal role. But they soon left the project because of differences with the developer.

El-Gamal, 38, confirmed Wednesday that they parted ways because "we had a different vision." He declined to elaborate.

The couple said they had discussed Park51 plans with relatives of 9/11 victims, first responders and others, including the possibility it could become a multi-faith center focusing on religious conflict. But El-Gamal wishes victims' families had been involved earlier — before the center became a point of contention.

"The biggest mistake we made was not to include 9/11 families," El-Gamal said, noting that the center's advisory board now includes at least one 9/11 family member.

At first, "we didn't understand that we had a responsibility to discuss our private project with family members that lost loved ones," he said, and they did not "really connect" with community leaders and activists.

But today, "we're very committed to having them involved in our project. ... We're really listening."

Pointing to the inclusivity of a center that critics feared would be polarizing, El-Gamal noted that the featured photographer in the "NYChildren" exhibit is Danny Goldfield, who is Jewish.

The Brooklyn photographer was inspired to create the exhibit by the story of Rana Sodhi, a Sikh who immigrated from India and settled in Arizona. His brother was killed in a retaliatory hate crime four days after Sept. 11, 2001.

Noting that Islam, Judaism and Christianity overlap in history and literature, El-Gamal said, "In order to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good Jew and a good Christian."

El-Gamal told the AP that fundraising is under way to complete the 15-story building that also is to include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center, and artist studios.

The mosque is especially needed in lower Manhattan, he said, because thousands of Muslims either work or live in the neighborhood, "and in our religion, we must pray five times a day."



그라운드 제로옆 이슬람 센터 침묵속 개장

(뉴욕 AP·AFP=연합뉴스) 지난해 '종교의 자유' 논쟁까지 촉발시켰던 맨해튼  9-11 테러 현장 인근의 이슬람 센터가 21일(현지시간) 조용히 문을 열었다.

격렬했던 찬반 논쟁과는 대조적으로 이슬람 문화센터 '파크 51' 개장식은  소규모 오케스트라의 중동 전통악기 연주와 뉴욕에 거주하는 이민자 어린이 160명의  인 물사진을 벽면에 걸어 놓은 사진전 개최가 행사의 전부였다.

이날 개장된 센터는 수영장, 헬스클럽, 강연장 및 영화 감상실 등 체육·레크레이션·교육 시설 등으로 꾸며졌으며 이슬람교도뿐 아니라 종파를 초월해 모든  사람 에게 개방된다.

센터의 일부이자 논란의 중심이었던 이슬람 모스크(예배당)는 2년 전부터  운영돼 왔다.

이 센터를 둘러싼 논란은 지난해 8월 뉴욕시  랜드마크위원회(기념건축물보존위원회)가 그라운드 제로에서 두 블록 떨어진 노후 건물에 대한 랜드마크 지위 부여안을 부결 시키면서 촉발됐다.

뉴욕시가 랜드마크 지위를 부여하지 않음으로써 이슬람 센터 개발 계획을  사실 상승인하자 일부 복음주의 목사들이 코란을 불태우는가 하면, 9-11 테러 9주년을 맞았을 때는 수천명이 이곳에 몰려들어 찬반 시위를 벌였다.

개발업자들은 이 건물을 맨해튼의 YMCA나 유대인 커뮤니티 센터를 모델로 한 이슬람 커뮤니티 센터로 짓는 것이라면서, 이슬람 극단주의 테러리스트들에 의해  3천명이 숨진 이 장소에 이슬람 센터를 건립하는 것은 종교간 '화해'의 상징이 될 수 있다고 주장했다.

하지만, 9-11 유가족 협의회와 유대인 종교 단체 등은 "그라운드 제로는 테러 희생자들의 공동묘역이며, 역사적으로 기념되어야 할 신성한 장소"라면서 "어디에든 모스크를 지을 수 있다고 생각할 수도 있겠지만, 이는 희생자들은 물론 그들 가족이 이슬람 극단주의로 인해 겪은 슬픔과 고통을 돌아보지 않는 잔인한 처사"라고  비난 했었다.

그러나 논란은 맨해튼 개발과 종교적 화해를 위해 이 프로젝트를 적극 지지한 마이클 불룸버그 시장의 노력 등으로 차츰 가라앉았고, 마침내 이날 개장에 이르렀 다.

'파크 51' 개발회사인 '소호 프로퍼티'의 샤리프 엘 가말 CEO는 "건립 계획 초기에 9-11 희생자 가족들을 포함시키지 않은 것이 가장 큰 실수 였다"면서 향후 센 터 자문위원회에 최소 한 명의 희생자 가족을 포함시킬 계획이라고 밝혔다.