LOS ANGELES – More than 30 Southern California religious leaders gathered Friday in downtown Los Angeles to show their support for plans to build a mosque and community center two blocks from ground zero, despite widespread opposition to the project.
The leaders representing more than a dozen faiths issued an open letter at a news conference in front of the Islamic Center of Southern California. They said growing "fear and hysteria" over the New York mosque is un-American and based on a distortion of the facts.
The letter was signed by 71 faith leaders, including Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Universalists, Mormons and Sufis.
"This is un-American, what we are seeing and feeling today," said Stephen Rohde, founder of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace said Friday. "It must be rejected by people of reason, it must be rejected by people of faith."
"Every faith here has been denied its right in one time and one place," he said. "We have seen this before, we are seeing it now. Americans must speak with a united voice and we are speaking with that voice today."
Developers want to build the $100 million community center, including a mosque, at a building two blocks north of where Islamic extremists brought down the World Trade Center in 2001. Muslims have been holding prayer services at the building since last year.
The project has caused a political uproar, pitting national Republicans against President Barack Obama and dividing Sept. 11 families and New Yorkers. Foes argue it's insensitive to build a Muslim place of worship so close to the place where terrorists killed more than 2,700 people.
Supporters led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg say the center's constitutional rights to religious freedom should be protected.
Supporters in Los Angeles said those who question the wisdom of the mosque and community center near ground zero are missing the larger point about freedom of religion. The owners of the site should not have to defend their reasoning, they said.
"If it were any other faith, there would be no question. I abhor the question," said Lewis Logan, with the Ruach Christian Community Fellowship. "It's egregious to even put the community under that stigma just because they want to build and expand on an existing site."
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak said he worried that the dialogue surrounding the New York mosque and opposition to other mosque projects, including one in Temecula, Calif., echoed the growing anti-Semitic sentiment in the 1930s.
"The loneliness and isolation that Jews felt in the 1930s is palpable, but now it's directed to the Muslims," he said.
"To anyone who knows their history, history is not only the past, it's a prologue," he said. "Muslims around the world are watching."