Islamic center near ground zero opens its doors; developer acknowledges ‘incredible mistakes’

A year after controversy engulfed plans to build a Muslim community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan, the project’s developers are quietly moving ahead: In recent months they have hired a paid staff, started fund-raising drives and continued holding prayers and cultural events in their existing building two blocks from ground zero.

The developer of an Islamic cultural center that opened Wednesday evening near the site of the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center says the biggest error on the project was not involving the families of 9/11 victims from the start.

El-Gamal said the overall center is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives. The center is open to all faiths and will include a 9/11 memorial, El-Gamal said. He called opposition to the center — which prompted one of the most virulent national discussions about Islam and freedom of speech and religion since Sept. 11 — part of a “campaign against Muslims.”

Last year, street clashes in view of the trade center site pitted supporters against opponents of the center.

El-Gamal told the AP that fundraising is under way to complete a 15-story building that will also include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center and artist studios. The mosque is especially needed in lower Manhattan, he said, because thousands of Muslims either work or live in the neighborhood, “and in our religion, we must pray five times a day.”

At the opening, an ebullient El-Gamal told reporters the project had been framed by others throughout the debate over its existence.

“Today, for the first time, everyone gets a little bit of a glimpse into the future of what Park51 is going to offer New York,” he said.