Lower Manhattan Mosque Debate Raised In Senate Race

A lower Manhattan zoning issue that has erupted into a national debate on religious freedom followed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Philadelphia this morning as he arrived to endorse U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak's campaign for the U.S. Senate.  Members of the media and a supporter of former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, Sestak's Republican opponent, questioned both politicians about their positions on plans for an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from the site where the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bloomberg grabbed the microphone from Sestak when the issue came up today at the Sullivan Progress Plaza on North Broad Street and said: "Let me point out, as someone from New York, there is a mosque that close already and it's been there for a long time."  [That was an apparent reference to the Masjid Manhattan, a mosque that opened in 1970 four blocks from the area now known as Ground Zero.]

Sestak told the mostly friendly crowd this morning that he spent 31 years in the U.S. Navy defending principles from the founding of the country, including freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. "This is an issue for New York to resolve as long as it respects those Constitutional rights," Sestak said of the Cordoba Initiative project. "Let's also step back and say let's stop playing politics with religion."

That didn't stop Bob Sklaroff, an Elkins Park doctor and member of Jewish-Americans for Sarah Palin who supports Toomey.  Sklaroff used the news conference to criticize Sestak for a 2007 speech he made to the Philadelphia Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Sklaroff, shouting over booing Sestak supporters, also accused the imam behind the proposed Islamic Center of making anti-American statements on a "60 Minutes" broadcast after Sept. 11, 2001.  Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told that CBS program and "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened" that day.

Bloomberg suggested that Sklaroff should brush up on the Bill of Rights, starting with the First Amendment.  "I happen to believe that that is the most important right that we have, the right to say what we want to say, which includes the right to pray to whomever we want to pray, in any place we want, in any matter we want," Bloomberg said. "But if you want the terrorists to win without firing a shot, then you take away the very freedoms that our young men and women are around the world fighting for."

Wendell Whitlock, chairman of the Sullivan Progress Plaza, denounced the mosque questions after the event as "political, contrived crap" that have nothing to do with the economy in the surrounding North Philadelphia neighborhood.