House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is suggesting a coordinated effort is behind the opposition to a proposed mosque and community center near Ground Zero, saying the whole dispute has been "ginned up" for political purposes and she supports a probe into those opponents.
Commenting publicly for the first time on the Park 51 project, Pelosi said the issue was posing a distraction and that some organized force is behind it.
"There is no question that there is a concerted effort to make this a political issue by some," she said in remarks posted Tuesday in a video on the San Francisco Chronicle website. "And I join those who have called for looking into how is this opposition to the mosque (is) being funded."
On Wednesday, Pelosi's office clarified that the speaker is not calling for a "congressional inquiry," though she still supports looking into the funding of the mosque's opponents as well as its patrons.
"I support the statement made by the Interfaith Alliance that 'We agree with the (Anti-Defamation League) that there is a need for transparency about who is funding the effort to build this Islamic center. At the same time, we should also ask who is funding the attacks against the construction of the center,'" she said.
Pelosi first weighed in Tuesday after both President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed their views on the project that has touched off a national debate about religious freedom and political correctness. Obama said Wednesday he has no regrets over his remarks that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in the U.S. A day later, he claimed that he wasn't endorsing the specifics of the mosque plan.
Polls show that a strong majority of Americans oppose the mosque's construction site while respecting the right of Muslims to practice their religion.
Though Obama and Reid appeared to be on opposite ends of the spectrum over the issue, Pelosi came out agnostic, saying the dispute over what she described as a "zoning issue" needs to be decided by New Yorkers.
"I think everybody respects the right of everyone in the country to express their religious beliefs. ... The decision, though, as to how to go forward in New York, is up to New York," Pelosi told local reporters in San Francisco. "I look to my colleagues in New York. Some of them have different views on the subject. It's up to them to work it out."
That may have been the position Obama was trying to take when he first weighed in Friday during a Ramadan dinner at the White House. The president appeared to support the mosque project, but the White House later clarified that he was underscoring the developers' right to build the center -- not endorsing it outright.
Reid afterward came out in opposition to the project. A strong majority of Americans say they oppose the site for construction of the mosque, but not the constitutional right of Muslims to worship.
A Republican aide ridiculed Pelosi's claim that there was a "conspiracy" to oppose the project.
"If the speaker needs help finding the heart of the 'GOP GZM Conspiracy,' I urge her to ask Sasquatch," the aide told Fox News. "His office is behind the black helicopter hangar between the unicorn pen and the leprechaun's pot of gold."
David Malpass, a New York Republican candidate seeking the Sept. 14 primary nomination to challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in November, issued a statement Wednesday saying Pelosi should be investigating foreign funding for the project.
"But instead she is turning her ire on concerned Americans, including families, firefighters and other first responders who care deeply about this issue. What she is doing is unconscionable," Malpass said. "New Yorkers deserve better, the heroes of September 11th deserve better, and I'm calling on Kirsten Gillibrand to immediately reject Speaker Pelosi's misguided and insensitive remarks."
A few lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have tried to dial down tensions over the debate.
New York Gov. David Paterson has renewed efforts to broker a deal over the project. After offering his help and the possibility that state land could be used for an alternative site, a Paterson spokesman told The Wall Street Journal that staff members are working with the developers. He said no "formal discussions" have taken place involving Paterson, but that a meeting will be set for the "near future."
However, project organizers denied there was any consideration being given to moving the mosque. A written statement from the Cordoba Initiative, the group pushing to build the Islamic center in lower Manhattan, said no meetings have been scheduled between Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf and Paterson, "nor have there been any communications between the offices of Cordoba Initiative and the governor."
Sharif El-Gamal of SoHo Properties, which owns the property at Park 51, said it's absolutely wrong to suggest that the site is being abandoned.
But a firefighter who is suing to prevent the existing site -- a former Burlington Coat Factory -- from being demolished filed a revised lawsuit Friday against the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, saying the developers don't even own the site outright but shares ownership with the public utility company, ConEdison.
"The revelation that a public utility owns part of the site raises a whole host of new legal questions and requires the involvement of a new public agency and possibly additional public hearings. That, coupled with the Landmarks Commission's procedural violations and deviations from administrative precedent, only strengthens our legal challenge," said attorney Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice.