NEW YORK — The proposed mosque near ground zero drew hundreds of fever-pitch demonstrators Sunday, with opponents carrying signs associating Islam with blood, supporters shouting, "Say no to racist fear!" and American flags waving on both sides.
Around the corner from the cordoned-off old building that is to become a 13-story Islamic community center and mosque, police separated the two groups. There were no reports of physical clashes but there were some nose-to-nose confrontations, including a man and a woman screaming at each other across a barricade under a steady rain.
That calm prevailed was due in large part to a sizable and wary police force. Dozens of officers kept watch and aggressively stopped members of either side from approaching the other.
The mosque project is being led by imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, who insist the center will promote moderate Islam. The dispute has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and American values and is becoming an issue on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections. Republicans have been critical of President Barack Obama's stance: He has said the Muslims have the right to build the center at the site but has not commented on whether he thinks they should.
On Sunday, opponents of the $100 million project two blocks from the World Trade Center site appeared to outnumber supporters. Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA blared over loudspeakers as mosque opponents chanted, "No mosque, no way!"
Signs hoisted by dozens of protesters standing behind police barricades read "SHARIA" — using dripping, blood-red letters to describe Islam's Shariah law, which governs the behavior of Muslims.
Steve Ayling, a 40-year-old Brooklyn plumber who carried his sign to a dry spot by an office building, said the people behind the mosque project are "the same people who took down the Twin Towers."
Opponents demand that the mosque be moved farther from the site where more than 2,700 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001. "They should put it in the Middle East," Ayling said.
A mannequin wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, was mounted on one of two mock missiles that were part of an antimosque installation. One missile was inscribed with the words: "Again? Freedom Targeted by Religion"; the other with "Obama: With a middle name Hussein. We understand. Bloomberg: What is your excuse?"
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended plans for the proposed mosque, saying that the right "to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded."
Politicians who oppose the project include former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; Rudy Giuliani, who was New York mayor at the time of the attacks; and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is facing a difficult re-election race.
Rauf, the imam leading the mosque project, is in the middle of a Mideast trip funded by the U.S. State Department that is intended to promote religious tolerance. He told a gathering Sunday at the U.S. ambassador's residence in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain that he took heart from the dispute over the mosque, saying "the fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success."
"It is my hope that people will understand more," Rauf said without elaborating.
Democratic New York Gov. David Paterson has suggested that state land farther from ground zero be used for the center. Daisy Khan, Rauf's wife and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, expressed some openness to that idea on ABC's This Week, but said she would have to meet with the center's other "stakeholders" first.
"We want to build bridges," Khan said. "We don't want to create conflict, this is not where we were coming from. So, this is an opportunity for us to really turn this around and make this into something very, very positive. So we will meet, and we will do what is right for everyone."
But Khan also said the angry reaction to the project "is like a metastasized anti-Semitism."
"It's not even Islamophobia. It's beyond Islamophobia," she said. "It's hate of Muslims."
At the pro-mosque rally, staged a block away from opponents' demonstration, several hundred people chanted, "Muslims are welcome here! We say no to racist fear!"
Dr. Ali Akram, a 39-year-old Brooklyn physician, came with his three sons and an 11-year-old nephew waving an American flag. He noted that scores of Muslims were among those who died in the towers, and he called those who oppose the mosque "un-American."
"They teach their children about the freedom of religion in America — but they don't practice what they preach," Akram said.
John Green, who lost a friend in the attacks, said that although organizers have the right to build the project, "I think if they moved it, they would get the respect of more Americans than if they play hardball." He was demonstrating in the group of mosque opponents.
Information from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.