President Obama has expressed his support for the construction of a Muslim community center and mosque near the World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan, as many protest the plan, saying it is wrong to build a mosque so close to the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.
NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office worked behind the scenes to help the organizers of a mosque and community center near ground zero, intervening with city administrators to get a temporary prayer service permit and having an official ghostwrite a letter to community leaders.
E-mails released by the city Thursday document the cooperation between Bloomberg's Community Affairs Unit and the Cordoba Initiative, even as a furor erupted this year over the center's proposed existence two blocks north of ground zero. The city released the documents in response to a public-records lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a conservative group.
Bloomberg's spokesman said the city has extended similar help to other religious groups. But Judicial Watch says the e-mails show the city government went too far with its assistance.
Bloomberg has been one of the strongest supporters of the project, which drew huge protests on both sides in the months before the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Opponents argued that locating a mosque so close to the attack site is insensitive to the victims' memories. Bloomberg and other supporters have said allowing the center to be built reflects American values of tolerance and religious freedom.
The city's help was no different from the assistance it gives other organizations, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said.
"It is nothing out of the ordinary. This is what the Community Affairs Unit does," he said, citing assistance the mayor's office gave Roman Catholic officials in composing a letter to community boards asking for their help with a papal visit and in rushing through a permit for a temporary hut erected for a Jewish holiday.
In May, Nazli Parvizi, the head of the city's community affairs unit, composed a 500-word letter to send to Community Board 1, an advisory council in lower Manhattan, about the mosque project. The draft of Parvizi's letter describes the center as a "wonderful expression of our religion" and laments "media distortion" of the project. The letter in e-mails was signed by Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the project.
In August, Bloomberg cited the community board's support in a speech endorsing the project.
In January the Cordoba Initiative asked Bloomberg's commissioner of immigrant affairs, Fatima Shama, for help getting a temporary permit to hold Friday worship services at the proposed site. The city had approved permits for previous weeks, and the group believed the omission was due to a clerical error.
Shama responded a few hours later, saying the problem had been fixed.
As public anger over the mosque began to spread in May, supporters turned to the city for advice.
"Is there a good time to chat tomorrow. We need some guidance on how to tackle the opposition," Khan wrote to Shama.
The e-mails also document donations of $300 from the Cordoba Initiative and $150 from the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a sister group, to help pay for an Aug. 24, 2009, dinner celebrating the holy Islamic month of Ramadan at the mayor's residence.
It was at that event that Rauf first told Bloomberg about his plans for the Islamic center, and the mayor responded that it sounded like a good idea, Loeser said.
Loeser said the donations did not influence the mayor's support of the project.
The center's developers envision a 13- to 15-story facility with a health club, a playground, a day care center, an auditorium, a Sept. 11 memorial and a prayer room for 2,000 worshippers. The developer of the site has said groundbreaking is about three years away.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said the documents show the city was an active proponent of the project.
"The mayor's office was at the beck and call of the ground zero mosque folks," Fitton said. "He obviously feels strongly about it, but he shouldn't turn the taxpayers of New York into advocates for this group."
The American Center for Law and Justice, which has sued the city to try to stop the Islamic center, said Bloomberg continues "to promote and advance a project that offends most New Yorkers and most Americans." A CBS News poll in August said about 71 percent of Americans oppose the project.
On Thursday the Cordoba Initiative said the Islamic center would bring economic development to lower Manhattan, and it thanked the Bloomberg administration for its help.
"I don't think they've acted improperly at all," said Leyla Turkkan, a spokeswoman for the project.