Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan said Thursday an Islamic community center and mosque planned near Ground Zero should be built because Muslims were among those of many faiths who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Why then should a mosque, a cultural center, not be constructed a few blocks away?" Farrakhan asked at a news conference in Washington, where he was joined by a coalition of African-American Muslims.
Farrakhan and other Muslim leaders said the controversy over the building points to a rise in racism toward minorities and an anti-Islamic atmosphere.
The proposed $100 million project has been denounced by many critics as insensitive to the families of people killed at the World Trade Center. They say it is disrespectful to build an Islamic institution so close to the spot where nearly 2,800 people died at the hands of Muslim extremists.
"When that building was destroyed, the whole world felt it," Farrakhan said, adding that many Muslims had offered their condolences to the country in the wake of the attacks. He said the area is also hallowed ground to blacks who are Muslims.
"Muslims are here. We are not terrorists," Farrakhan said. "We will not allow anyone on our watch to do some silly act to deprive an innocent human being of their life. And if we see it, we'll stop it."
Early plans for the Islamic center in lower Manhattan call for a swimming pool, a Sept. 11 memorial open to the public and a prayer space.
Farrakhan also commented on the rumors that President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
"Respect his choice," Farrakhan said. "He chose to be a Christian, but he has deep respect for Islam. Take him as he is."
Obama has said Muslims have the right to practice their religion and build the Islamic center in lower Manhattan. He later said he wasn't commenting on the wisdom of building it there.
In a poll released last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 18 percent of people said they believe Obama is Muslim. That was up from 11 percent who said so in March 2009.