Muslim leaders, including some representing large organizations, issued a statement Monday calling for a week of dialogue next month on the divisive Park51 project.
The hope for the interfaith dialogue is to help end growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the nation over the proposed Islamic center and mosque near ground zero. The Week of Dialogue is scheduled for Oct. 22 to 24, during which mosques across the nation are encouraged to open their doors to non-Muslims.
"And that's why we're opening this to a true and open conversation among Americans on how to shape this project to reflect what America is," said Nihad Awad, head of the Council on American Islamic Relations, while standing in front of the proposed site for Park51 on Monday.
Other signers of the statement included the leadership of the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, and the North America Imams Federation. The developers of Park51 did not attend the conference.
In the statement, signers agreed that Muslims have the constitutional right to build the center at the proposed site and they expressed support for Park51. But they also recognize the strong public opposition to the center and hope to defuse the tension through dialogue.
According to a New York Times poll last month, two in three New Yorkers – including many who support the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero – say leaders of the project should find a location further from the 9/11 crash site.
And 57 percent of Americans overall oppose allowing the center to be built two blocks from the former World Trade Center, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service poll.
But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the visionary of the project, recently argued that moving the center would be dangerous to national security because extremists would take the move as proof that the United State is against Islam and use the issue as a recruiting tool.
Shaik Ubaid, a participant of the conference, used the same reasoning to explain his support.
"Once it became a rallying cry for extremists, we had no choice but to stand with Feisal Rauf," he said, according to The Associated Press.
However, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, disagrees with Rauf and said he finds the argument "offensive."
"I don't think most Americans are willing to let religious zealots who don't have any regard for human life to dictate to them in the United States what decision we are going to make about religious freedom and where places of worship are located," Land told The Christian Post.
Land and most critics of the Park51 project agree developers have a right to build the center near ground zero. But they argue that just because developers have the right does not mean it is a wise move to make. Critics argue such a center near the former WTC would be insensitive to the victims and family members of those who died.
They also point out that going through with the project would work against the center's mission to promote understanding between the West and Muslim world. The proposed center has not brought healing but rather division, they say.
The proposed $100-million, 13-story Islamic center is expected to include a swimming pool, cultural center, culinary school, restaurants, bookstores, and interfaith prayer space.
Earlier this month, Rauf insisted that the site for the proposed center is not sacred, as some have argued.