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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Plans to build a mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks have touched off a firestorm among New Yorkers nearly a decade after Muslim extremists linked to al Qaeda slammed planes into the World Trade Center.
The Cordoba House mosque, part of a Muslim center to be built two blocks from what is now known as Ground Zero proposed as a conciliatory move, was overwhelmingly approved by a local community board in May.
But the plans are being resisted by some New Yorkers who say a mosque would be inappropriate so close to the place where nearly 3,000 people were killed.
"I'm certainly not against religious expression, but I feel it's an insensitive place to do that," said Paul Sipos, a member of the community board who did not vote on the issue. "Cordoba House should have reached out to the people who were most affected, instead of doing it by confrontation."
The center is a project of the Cordoba Initiative, a New York group aiming to improve relations between Muslims and the West. It would feature a 13-story structure with a 500-person auditorium, swimming pool, bookstores and a prayer space.
Cordoba Initiative's chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Islamic scholar, said the center would be open to everyone and would help foster better understanding.
"My colleagues and I are the anti-terrorists," Rauf wrote in an editorial in New York's Daily News. "We are the people who want to embolden the vast majority of Muslims who hate terrorism to stand up to the radical rhetoric."
The proposed mosque is now awaiting approval from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission which expects to vote on the issue sometime this summer.
The dispute plays into a broader, unanswered questions of what should become of the World Trade Center site. Some favor a rebuilding to show the city's strength and resilience, while others believe the site should be a memorial and a place of reflection and remembrance.
"The meaning of the site is still contested," said Rosemary R. Hicks, a Columbia University scholar whose research focuses on Muslims in the United States. "What does it mean to us as Americans? Americans are so unsure, and that's why the mosque is hitting such a nerve."
Muslims too disagree over the wisdom of putting a mosque near the site of the attacks.
"After all, it was 19 Egyptian and Saudi Arabian thugs calling themselves Muslims who perpetrated this heinous crime on September 11th," said Hossein Kamaly, a professor of Middle Eastern culture at Barnard College, part of Columbia University.
"They want to send a message of friendship, but building a mosque where there wasn't one before, is not the most nuanced way of doing that," Kamaly said.
The organizers, who hope to build more understanding among non-Muslims, say they are struggling to overcome negative public opinion fueled by high-profile cases of extremism and stereotypes among people unfamiliar with the religion.
Their cause was not helped by the case of Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad who has been indicted on terrorism charges for trying to set off a car bomb in New York City's Times Square, center of the theater district, on a busy evening on May 1.
"When someone claims to do something in the name of Islam and you don't know much about Islam, it's much easier to go, 'Well, maybe it is because of Islam,'" said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"One benefit of having a mosque in an area is that when people have contact with ordinary Muslims, prejudice goes down," he said.
Plans for mosques in New York's Brooklyn and Staten Island boroughs also are hitting opposition, with neighbors worried about potential extremism.
"In the beginning, it will be peaceful, but we just don't know what they will be taught there and that bothers us," said Alex Davidson, 62, a repair man who lives near the proposed Brooklyn mosque. He said: "If you look at the statistics, most terrorists are Muslim."
Ayman Hammous, leader of a group planning to turn an unused convent into a mosque in Staten Island, said Muslims oppose such violence. "We will not give it up," he said. "We as American Muslims are against terrorists, and we don't have to be apologetic for what they do."
Ibrahim Anse, an organizer of the Brooklyn mosque, said it would provide English classes, after-school programs for children and lectures in English. Arabic prayers would be translated into English.
"We are open to the entire community, and we welcome everyone to join," Anse said.
Reporting by Karina Ioffee; Editing by New York bureau