NEW YORK — The goodwill that Mayor Michael Bloomberg built among the city's Muslims with his support of the "ground zero mosque" was threatened this week as Islamic leaders decried a newly disclosed police effort to gather intelligence on Muslim neighborhoods.
Fifteen Muslim clerics and community leaders said they will boycott the mayor's annual interfaith breakfast Friday over the surveillance program, whose existence was revealed recently in a series of Associated Press articles.
The breakfast has long served as a way to showcase the city's diversity and tolerance during the overlapping winter holidays.
"I couldn't be there while knowing that the mayor supports, if not established, this warrantless spying apparatus," said Hesham El-Meligy, founder of the Building Bridges Coalition of Staten Island. "I could not just go there as if everything was OK, knowing that it's not."
He and other Muslim activists and clerics sent a letter to Bloomberg this week turning down their invitations. About three dozen other people signed the letter as supporters, including rabbis, a Roman Catholic nun, Protestant pastors and a Quaker, though it was unclear how many had been invited to the breakfast.
Activists accused Bloomberg of squandering the goodwill built up last year when he fiercely defended a proposed Islamic prayer and cultural center not far from where the World Trade Center stood. The mosque is still in the planning stages.
Bloomberg had also won praise from Muslim leaders for criticizing anti-Islamic rhetoric and offering words of compassion after fires in the Bronx killed a large Muslim family and destroyed a mosque.
"However, despite these welcome and positive actions, very disturbing revelations have come to light regarding the city's treatment of Muslim New Yorkers," the letter said.
Bloomberg's office has said it expects about two dozen Muslim leaders to attend the breakfast.
"You're going to see a big turnout tomorrow, and it's nice that all faiths can get together," the mayor said Thursday. Boycott participants "are going to miss a chance to have a great breakfast"
He and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have insisted their counterrorism programs are legal.
"Contrary to assertions, the NYPD lawfully follows leads in terrorist-related investigations and does not engage in the kind of wholesale spying on communities that was falsely alleged," police spokesman Paul Browne said in an email Thursday.
But former and current NYPD intelligence officials directly involved in the secret spying efforts told the AP that they often monitored and mapped businesses and organizations without any specific leads to indicate involvement in terrorism.
The AP series detailed police department efforts to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods and mosques with aggressive programs designed by a CIA officer. Documents reviewed by the AP revealed that undercover police officers known as rakers visited businesses such as Islamic bookstores and cafes, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicities and gauge their views. They also played cricket and eavesdropped in ethnic clubs.
Critics said the efforts amount to ethnic profiling and violate court guidelines that limit how and why police can collect intelligence before there is evidence of a crime. They have asked a judge to issue a restraining order against the police.
Participants in the boycott said they feel betrayed by the city.
"Civic engagement is a two-way street. We've done our part as a community; we're waiting for the city to do their part," said Linda Sarsour, president of the Arab-American Association of New York.
Other Muslim leaders said they disagreed with the boycott.
"I believe that engagement is more important. I think everyone disagrees with the way the way the NYPD is penetrating the community, but I think generalizing everything else as bad is not appropriate," said Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. "The mayor's not perfect, but there are many things about him we need to appreciate. And I think working with him is a way of appreciation."
The surveillance has revealed deep divisions in the city a decade after 9/11. Many New Yorkers say they empathize with Muslims living under the pall of suspicion, but also support aggressive police efforts against would-be terrorists.
The New York Daily News and New York Post defended the police in editorials this week, with the Daily News calling the AP's reporting "overheated, overhyped."
The AP's senior managing editor, Michael Oreskes, sent a letter to the newspaper Thursday in defense of the news organization.
"These were stories about where our city was drawing the line in protecting New Yorkers from another 9/11 attack," Oreskes wrote. "The stories were based on extensive reporting and documents. It is a journalist's job to report the activities of government. It is up to citizens to decide about those activities."
Read AP's previous stories and documents about the NYPD at: http://www.ap.org/nypd
Letter to Bloomberg: http://interfaithletter.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/hello-world/