NEW YORK - The construction of an Islamic cultural center close to Ground Zero – where the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred – has divided public opinion, including the families of Hispanic victims and survivors.
Among those in favor of the construction is William Rodríguez, a maintenance worker in the Twin Towers who rescued numerous people after the attacks. In an interview with El Diario/La Prensa, the Puerto Rican survivor said, "I worked in those buildings for 20 years and lost 200 friends, but I defend freedom of religion." Others are not so open to the idea. The cultural center – which includes the construction of a mosque – would be located two blocks from where the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. Hundreds of people came out during the past weekend to show their support or opposition to the plan.
While President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are in favor of building the mosque, New York Governor David Paterson and ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have come out against the construction of the cultural center, characterizing it as disrespectful to families of the victims.
"Not all families feel that way," asserted Rodríguez, who founded an association for the families of Hispanic victims, Hispanic Victims Group. "Most of the families who lost family members are still trying to understand what happened. They don't want it to turn political."
However, Rosa Pérez-Leonetti, a Dominican who lost her brother-in-law in the attacks, maintained: "This most recent controversy touches all the families. While freedom of expression and religion are inherent in our country, there also exists what we call decency."
Pérez-Leonetti's brother-in-law, Joseph Gullickson, was a firefighter who died in Tower 1.
"I'm not saying don't build it, I'm just saying don't build it there," said Pérez-Leonetti, who identifies herself with right-wing groups who have opposed the mosque.
It's not just Hispanic families and survivors who have found themselves affected by the controversy – Hispanic Muslims have also had to defend the construction of the mosque.
Ramon Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican who converted to Islam almost 40 years ago, and worked with Alianza Islámica [New York City-based Hispanic Muslim organization], reminds people that his religion and the attacks are two distinct things. "There should not be any problem (with a mosque)," he said.
He lamented, "They are using what occurred to paint the [entire] international Islamic community as terrorists."
MIXED IN WITH THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE
The construction of the mosque in Lower Manhattan has mixed in with the debate on immigration. Groups against the construction of the mosque include 9/11 Families for a Secure America, a foundation created by families of victims of the attacks, which later expanded to include families of people victimized by undocumented immigrants. This group blames the attacks on immigration policies that allowed the terrorists into the country. One member of the organization, Ed Kowalski, said, "September 11 occurred because our country was not alert enough when it came to illegal immigration." For Kowalski, the construction of the mosque is not "an appropriate memorial" for the victims. However, according to William Rodríguez – a survivor who founded an association for Hispanic victims, Hispanic Victims Group – this group [9/11 Families for a Secure America] has used the construction of the cultural center to push the political agenda of the extreme right. "They don't represent all families. They have manipulated us, they have used our position as families and survivors to attack a religious group and use this as a political weapon to attack the president," he declared.