With city approval of a proposed mosque and Islamic center two blocks away from Ground Zero nearly secured, the battle over the project is moving away from zoning boards to the court of public opinion.
The former Burlington Coat Factory building that will make way for the Cordoba House which some are calling the "Ground Zero Mosque."
The expected clearing of another major regulatory hurdle on Tuesday is unlikely to silence the debate around an issue that has become a call to arms for national Republicans—who have been emboldened by polls showing widespread public skepticism about the project—and a divisive policy matter for religious groups.
The landmarks commission on Tuesday is expected to approve the demolition of the 152-year-old former Burlington Coat Factory building on Park Place to make way for a 13-story Islamic community center that would contain a prayer space, as well as recreational and cultural facilities.
Positions on both sides of the debate have hardened around the mosque, a $100 million project spearheaded by a Kuwaiti-born cleric, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who says the center aims to promote cultural understanding.
The question has turned to whether critics such as families of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, who consider the idea of the mosque so close to Ground Zero a deliberate provocation, will be able to generate enough outrage to persuade the imam to revise his plans and build elsewhere.
"They should just move this thing," Carl Paladino, a Republican candidate for governor, said on Sunday.
He added: "The vast majority of New Yorkers and Americans have rejected their idea. If a bridge was their intent, why jam it down our throats? Why does it have to be right there?"
On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League, a national Jewish group, announced its opposition to the mosque by appealing directly to the leadership of the planned center.
"In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right," the organization said in a statement.
The Anti-Defamation League's stance came under sharp criticism from some other Jewish and civil rights groups, as well as from prominent Jewish writers, such as Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine, who called the organization's statement a "terrible decision."
Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, responded on Sunday with even sharper language.
"Two blocks away is basically in your face," Mr. Foxman said. Referring to Jewish groups that have attacked the ADL as bowing to anti-Muslim sentiment, he said: "The fact that bigots agree with your position doesn't make you a bigot."
For the ADL, it's an issue of "consistency," said Mr. Foxman, who cited his organization's protests in the late 1980s against a Carmelite convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
"If we want the national community to understand our pain and sensitivity, then we need to be sensitive to the pain of other victims," Mr. Foxman said.
Oz Sultan, a spokesman for the group behind the Islamic center, on Sunday responded to Mr. Foxman by saying: "We've stood with the ADL and their efforts to eradicate anti-Semitism and bigotry. We just expected they would give other religions the same consideration."
On the local political level, Republican outrage intensified over the weekend, while Democrats accused the GOP of abandoning American principles to score political points.
"If Andrew Cuomo would simply do his job, we'd have a lot less controversy. People would feel that somebody is taking care of this," said Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor who has called on Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic contender in the race, to probe the financing of the mosque, formerly called Cordoba House and now known as Park51.
Mr. Lazio has pointed to the proposed location of the mosque and past comments made by Imam Rauf, in which he refused to label Hamas a terrorist organization and argued that American foreign policy was an "accessory" to the September 11, 2001, attacks, as evidence of a more extremist motive for building the mosque.
While Mr. Cuomo and his campaign have made few public comments about the controversy—other than to say his office would investigate any allegations of wrongdoing—his political surrogates have begun to step up their rebuttals.
On Sunday, Jay Jacobs, the head of the state Democratic Party, labeled the Republican criticism "offensive" and "ludicrous."
"Lazio and Paladino are so bereft of ideas that they're manufacturing an issue where none exists," Mr. Jacobs said in a statement. "The backers of this project haven't raised funds to build the mosque so there's nothing to investigate. More to the point, this line of attack politicizes 9/11 and goes against everything that America symbolizes. It's as offensive as it is ludicrous."
Regarding Mr. Rauf's position on Hamas, Mr. Sultan said: "it's unfair to ask clergy to make blanket denunciations."
Write to Jacob Gershman at email@example.com.
I worry now that this has reached the press, will anyone be safe in this area? From persecution, danger, suspicion? I also think that "two blocks away" is almost a world away, so on that note I want to say that if they block this, society as a whole will suffer a blow.