NEW YORK – Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has put high-visibility support behind a proposed cultural center and mosque near ground zero, using the windows of his top-floor apartment across the street from the site where the World Trade Center stood to display a call for coexistence, loving one's neighbor and support of the First Amendment.
"I was trying to figure out ways I could reach people and promote a message of tolerance," Simmons told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Spelled out through the symbols of the world's religions is the word "coexist," starting with an Islamic star and crescent for the "C'' and finishing with a Christian cross for the "T." Other symbols include a backward Hindu "Om," a Star of David, a peace sign and a yin-yang.
The signs take up six of the nine windows on the top story of the building on Liberty Street. The seventh window says "Mark 12:31," a reference to a Bible verse about loving one's neighbor, while the eighth window equates the U.S. with freedom and the ninth says, "IT'S THE LAW."
A controversy has raged over Park51, the planned Islamic cultural center about two blocks from ground zero that would include a mosque. While supporters of Park51 point to the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, opponents say the mosque should be moved farther away from where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Simmons said he supported the cultural center being built at the proposed site, and that the country was built on religious freedom.
"The fact that it is a public discussion, that there's so many against it is what I think is disappointing to me, that so many people don't know that we founded our country on the First Amendment," he said.
Simmons also said it was important for non-Muslims to speak out on the issue.
"It's for Jews, it's for Christians, it's for African-Americans and other non-Muslims to stand up and protect the rights of the Muslims involved in this debate. They shouldn't have to say a word," he said. "It's an American principle, it should offend every American."
The signs went up Monday afternoon. Simmons said they'll remain up until at least Sept. 11.