ALBANY, N.Y. – New York Gov. David Paterson offered state help Tuesday if the developers of a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks agree to move the project farther from the site.
Paterson, a Democrat, said that he doesn't oppose the project as planned but indicated that he understands where opponents are coming from. He said he was willing to intervene to seek other suitable state property if the developers agreed.
"I think it's rather clear that building a center there meets all the requirements, but it does seem to ignite an immense amount of anxiety among the citizens of New York and people everywhere, and I think not without cause," Paterson said in a news conference in Manhattan.
The developers declined to comment. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last week made an impassioned defense of the project planned for lower Manhattan, declined to comment through a spokesman.
"I am very sensitive to the desire of those who are adamant against it to see something else worked out," Paterson said.
Paterson said he expects the state Public Service Commission, which must sign off on the Corboda Initiative's project, to follow the law and not politics in its review.
Paterson noted that "we really are still suffering in many respects" from Sept. 11 and that impassioned feelings were bound to emerge from a mosque just a couple of blocks from where nearly 3,000 people died at the hands of Muslim extremists.
He noted that Muslims died in the Sept. 11 attacks, too, and that "we have to remember that sometimes it's the fanaticism of religion that have driven people to do what they do, not the worship of the religion itself."
Supporters of the cultural center, including some Jewish activists, argue the aim of the Cordoba Initiative is to improve understanding of Islam. They point out that Muslims worshipped in the same area for a long time before the 13-story, $100 million proposal became public in May and was the subject of public hearings in the city and debate on television and radio nationwide.
Opponents note that the center will replace a building damaged by the landing gear of a jet that slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They say the religion that fueled the hatred in the terrorists shouldn't be displayed so near to the site and in a place New Yorkers will have to pass daily.
A city board cleared the way for the existing building to be razed to make way for the center, which is to include athletic and arts facilities and be dedicated to peace and tolerance. Critics are suspicious of who will fund the project, and developers haven't released their sources of capital.
Carl Paladino, a Republican candidate for governor, said the plan is "no different than Japan asking to build a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor."
Bloomberg argues, though, that it "would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."
The State Department said Tuesday that the imam behind the center was being sent on a religious outreach trip to the Middle East, a plan that predated the controversy.
The department is sponsoring Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's visit to Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where he will discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance, department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
"We have a long-term relationship with him," Crowley told reporters, noting that Rauf had visited Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2007 and went to Egypt last January as part of a State Department exchange program.
A Marist College poll released Tuesday found that 53 percent of New York City voters polled oppose constructing the mosque there. Just 34 percent favored the plan in the poll, which also showed a slide in Bloomberg's traditional high approval ratings.
The Marist poll surveyed 696 New York City voters July 28 through Aug. 5 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS the figures and language in the final paragraph to include results among voters, instead of residents.)