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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Supporters and opponents of a proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque near the World Trade Center site staged competing rallies in downtown Manhattan on Sunday, kept apart by police and barricades.
The emotionally charged debate, which has gained national political significance, centers on plans to build the center two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
Republicans against the project are using it to attack Democratic President Barack Obama ahead of midterm elections, where his party is fighting to retain control of Congress.
Opponents of the center, which would include a prayer room, say its proposed location is insensitive and fear it will harbor religious extremism. Those who back it cite the right to religious freedom and a need to promote tolerance and understanding.
Hundreds of opponents on Sunday chanted "No Mosque," sang patriotic songs and waved photographs of violent attacks by Islamic extremists.
One sign read: "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorists were Muslim."
Around the corner, supporters chanted: "We don't care what bigots say, religious freedom is here to stay."
A supporter, retired school teacher Ilene Kahn, said: "This has become a political tool to preach hatred. The peace-loving Muslims did not attack us."
While tempers were heated and shouting matches erupted, no violence or arrests were reported. Uniformed police and rows of barricades kept many in the crowds apart. Police officials said extra forces were deployed but would not say how many were added.
Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have said they support the right of Muslims to build the center near Ground Zero, while Republicans, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, oppose it.
Others suggest it be moved to a less controversial spot.
Ali Akram, a local doctor who supports the project, said: "The people who say the mosque is too close to Ground Zero, those are the same people that protest mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island and Tennessee and Wisconsin and California. What radius will they go for? There's no end to it."
Many in the crowd opposing the center were firefighters and construction workers, who carried signs reading: "This is Sacred Ground to New Yorkers."
One sign read: "Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Islam I Learned on 9/11."
Plans for the project include a 13-story building to house an auditorium, swimming pool, meeting rooms as well as the prayer space. The structure is architecturally plain and does not include a minaret, dome or other motifs often associated with mosques.
Some opponents have taken legal action, seeking to void a ruling that would allow construction to proceed, while some construction workers have launched a Hard Hat Pledge, vowing not to work on the project.