NEW YORK (RNS) Barely visible among the high-rise apartment buildings and cocktail lounges, a battered steel door in Manhattan's trendy Tribeca neighborhood leads to a basement jammed with barefoot men praying on their lunch break.
The makeshift mosque is a far cry from the 13-story proposed Cordoba House, the so-called planned "Ground Zero mosque" that's two blocks closer to the busy construction site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
And the leaders of Masjid Manhattan want to keep it that way.
''We are not involved with that other group," said Imam Mustafa Elazabawy, raising his voice just loud enough to be heard above the din of an air conditioner unit, but not to disturb the Arabic recitations. "We have been here for 30 years, in this neighborhood. Many Muslims also died over there, on 9/11."
Ever since Masjid Manhattan lost its lease on nearby Warren Street in 2008, members have struggled to find a more suitable space for daily prayers. They've also tried to keep a low profile, clearly nervous about prompting the kind of outcry that has plagued the planned Cordoba House project.
Nevermind that Cordoba House is neither a mosque nor really at Ground Zero. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, insists the facility will serve as a YMCA-type community center for interfaith bridge-building. The $100 million complex, replacing an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory warehouse, would have a prayer room, but also a swimming pool, basketball court, childcare services, art exhibitions and a food court serving halal dishes from around the world.
But opponents, including retired New York City firefighter Tim Brown, say a highly visible Muslim organization with international benefactors has no place in the neighborhood, especially not in a building damaged by the attacks.
''We're saying no to the group and no to the location. A mosque in the U.S. that's using foreign money from countries with Shariah law is unacceptable, especially in this neighborhood," Brown said. "The other group (Masjid Manhattan) lost their lease, and they just want to replace what they already had. That's a lot more understandable."
Brown, who wears a metal bangle on his right wrist engraved with the names of two of the nearly 100 friends he lost on 9/11, demurs when asked how far would be considered a more appropriate buffer zone from Ground Zero. Five more blocks away? 15?
''You can't put a rule on that," he said. "It's about being sensitive to the families."
Brown has enlisted the services of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative law firm founded by Pat Robertson and better known for championing the rights of Christians to build and worship freely. The ACLJ, representing Brown and more than 20,000 people who have signed an online petition for the Committee to Stop the Ground Zero Mosque, has been lobbying the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to give 45-47 Park Place landmark status — adding a major hurdle to construction there — because part of one of the hijacked planes had fallen through its roof.