The controversy over construction of a cultural center that includes a mosque near Ground Zero has emerged as an attack point for GOP underdog Rick Lazio in his race for governor against Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
On Tuesday Lazio testified before the New York City Landmarks Commission in favor of designating landmark status to the 150-year-old building on Park Place that is the proposed site of the center, which would be a setback for the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which sees the $100 million, 15-story Cordoba House as its version of the 92nd Street Y.
If the former Burlington Coat Factory building, heavily damaged on 9/11, is designated a landmark, the project would be subject to severe restrictions.
Lazio last week held a press conference near the site calling on Cuomo, as attorney general, to investigate the Cordoba Initiative, the group behind the center, because of reports that its imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has been linked to organizers of the Gaza flotilla and has refused to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization.
“Given that the Cordoba Initiative is a legally registered charitable organization with the New York Attorney General’s Office, my fellow New Yorkers and I are asking you to immediately conduct a thorough investigation,” said Lazio. “The people have a right to know.”
In a recent interview with The Jewish Week, Lazio said, “Until we know who is funding this mosque and what their intentions are, we should not be going ahead with this particular mosque.” (The MetroPolitics video interview is available at www.thejewishweek.com).
Press reports have described Imam Rauf as a key figure in Perdana Group, which gave $322,000 to the Free Gaza Committee. The committee sponsored, along with a similar Turkish group, the Gaza aid flotilla that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, resulting in the deaths of eight Turks and a Turkish-American.
Lazio, who won about 45 percent of the Jewish vote statewide in his unsuccessful Senate bid in 2000 against Democrat Hillary Clinton, clearly hopes to do well with the community this year. (He’s also in favor of tax credits for private school tuition or vouchers, a position favored by the Orthodox community.)
But Jewish leaders haven’t made a big deal about the center, and the JCC of Manhattan even offered some advice. Jewish elected officials such as Manhattan-based Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have supported the center, dismissing opposition to it as bigotry.
A spokesman at the attorney general’s office, John Milgrom, would not comment on whether there is any investigation of the Cordoba Initiative. He referred The Jewish Week to a campaign spokesman who did not respond as of Tuesday afternoon.
Cuomo recently told NY1 News: “If there is a criminal case, then there is a criminal case. But if this is: I don’t like this religion and I don’t like this religion on this block, or: I don’t like this religion in this city, then I agree with Mayor Bloomberg. Then I agree with the community board that approved the mosque.”
Lazio trails Cuomo in both popularity and fundraising heading into the November election. A Rasmussen telephone poll of 500 likely voters at the end of June showed Cuomo with a 55-28 percent lead over Lazio. Lazio has raised $647,000 compared to Cuomo’s $16 million.
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Opposition to neighborhood mosques has sprouted up in some New York City neighborhoods and elsewhere because some recent terror plots have been tied to activity at mosques.
Lazio told The Jewish Week that such situations should be viewed on a “case-by-case basis. … I don’t want to see a faith excluded from a neighborhood simply because it is shared by a minority within a community.”
Baruch College political science Professor Doug Muzzio said the candidate’s focus on this issue was intended to appeal to post-9/11 sensitivities. “The word mosque is a very loaded one for many people, and using it is a very calculated decision by Lazio,” said Muzzio.