By Jill Colvin
DOWNTOWN — Nearly 2,000 people gathered on the eve of Sept. 11 for a candlelight vigil in support of the controversial mosque, planned two blocks from Ground Zero.
Packed along Church Street between Murray and Barclay streets, with the World Trade Center site's blue Tribute in Light in the background, local politicians and religious leaders called for tolerance as the national controversy surrounding the proposed center continues to brew.
"This is the time when New Yorkers of all faiths and persuasions can come together in a respectful way to honor those who gave their lives on Sept 11.," said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union which organized the event in collaboration with more than 120 other groups.
"It’s shocking for those of us who live in New York that there should even be a question about whether there should be an Islamic center in this neighborhood," she said.
Attendants were instructed to bring candles and American flags, but not signs, to stave off criticism that the rally — as well as other events planned throughout the weekend — are inappropriately politicizing 9/11, which they say should be a day of mourning.
But Columbia University student Minkailu Jalloh, 23, disagreed.
"I think this is a tribute to the people who lost their lives during 9/11," said Jalloh, as he looked across the crowd. Jalloh, a Muslim, prays at the Cordoba House, the site of the proposed Park51, which was barricaded through the night by police and will be throughout the weekend.
Others, like Monica Bernheim, 63, said she came to show her support for religious tolerance.
"We felt it was very important to let people know that what this city stands for is freedom," said Bernheim, who came with her husband from the Upper West Side.
Thomas Cheslick, 66, a retired teacher from Brooklyn, compared the fight to the civil rights movement, which he participated in.
"I'm here to stand up for the American Constitution and way of life," he said as he waved an American flag. "The way we're going to defeat those people who came out of the sky is with freedom."
Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to hold the position, traveled from Minnesota to express his support of the mosque. He said America is being judged by how it responds.
"The whole world is watching you, the whole world has its eyes on you right now," he told the crowd. Ellison was joined by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Council members Gale Brewer and Margaret Chin.
Many said that they have been shocked by the growing tide of anti-Muslim violence across the country.
"I've been really concerned about, and troubled by, the hatred that's been expressed. It's frightening," said Shanee Stepakoff, 47, who lives in the East Village.
"I think this kind of vigil is very important. Anything to show that we denounce that kind of hatred," she said.
Mino Akhtar, 57, a close friend of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said that if the Imam had known the controversy it would cause, they never would have chosen the site.
"I honestly never would have imagined this in my worst nightmare," she said of the recent events.
Earlier in the day at a White House press conference, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his support for the mosque and made an unusually emotional appeal for religious understanding.
"We’ve got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country," he said. "When we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?"
"We don’t differentiate between them and us. It’s just us," he said.
Meanwhile, the NYCLU Friday announced plans to begin displaying ads in support of the mosque on the back on city buses beginning Sept. 20.
"Would there even be a controversy if this weren’t a mosque?” asks the ad, above duplicate images of the proposed Park51 building with a cross, Islamic crescent and Jewish star.
Last month, the America Freedom Defense Initiative began running ads on buses that show a picture of a plane flying into the World Trade Center that asks "Why There?"