NEW YORK — More than a dozen Muslim clerics and civic leaders skipped Mayor Michael Bloomberg's annual interfaith breakfast Friday, saying they were upset that he supported police department surveillance efforts in their neighborhoods.
The 15 leaders wrote a letter to the mayor, saying they were protesting the spying program first revealed in a series of Associated Press articles. The letter made a controversy out of a normally sedate end-of-the-year meeting.
Bloomberg didn't directly address the boycott during the event, though he did quote his father as telling him that "discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone."
He also said: "We have to keep our guard up, but if we don't work together we won't have our own freedoms."
The breakfast is traditionally held at the historic New York Public Library building on 42nd Street and has long served to showcase the city's diversity during overlapping winter holidays.
Hesham El-Meligy, a founder of the Building Bridges Coalition of Staten Island, said he boycotted the breakfast in hopes of persuading the mayor to abandon his support for the surveillance program.
"I don't care about having breakfast, I care about the liberties that I came to this country for," said El-Meligy, who is from Egypt.
Rabbi Michael Weisser signed the letter as a supporter but said he did not participate in the boycott because he hoped to engage the mayor in conversation about the dispute.
"From a Jewish perspective, it reminded me of things that were going on in the 1930s in Germany. We don't need that in America," he said. "The Muslim community is targeted. It's stereotyped. When people think of terrorism, they immediately think Muslim."
He said he had no problem with the police department following leads, but objected to the sense that the department is targeting Muslim organizations because they are Muslim.
"We can't be painting a whole group of people with the same broad brush," he said.
More than 350 people attended Friday's breakfast, more than last year.
On his weekly Friday morning appearance on WOR-AM, Bloomberg defended police, saying they don't target any ethnic group.
"It's like saying you are going after people that are my height with brown hair. If a perp is described that way in the neighborhood, you look at everybody in the neighborhood that's got brown hair, my height, you stop them," he said.
"But we have great race relations here. The communities whether they're Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever, all contribute to this city. We don't target any one of them. We don't target any neighborhood."
Records examined by the AP show the police department collected information on people who were neither accused nor suspected of wrongdoing.
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.
The surveillance efforts have been credited with enabling police to thwart a 2004 plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station.
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.
Speaking to the media after the breakfast, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the AP articles contained "half-truths and some just things that are not true" but refused to identify them.
"I'm not going to get into it. I don't have time to do that," Kelly said.
Kelly said that none of the attendees at the breakfast had raised the matter with him.
"We believe we're doing what we have to do, pursuant to the law, to protect this city," he said.
Hussein Rashid, an Islamic studies professor at Hofstra University, wore a blazer over a T-shirt that said "I am not a terrorist." He said he was disappointed the mayor did not address the surveillance program during his remarks.
"The idea of the NYPD spying on New Yorkers is utterly deplorable," he said.
But another attendee, Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, said she didn't think the breakfast was "an occasion to express our differences."
Imam Mohammad Sherzad of the Hasrat Abubakr Mosque in Queens said he worried the boycott would hurt communication between religious groups and city officials.
"We have to meet each other, we have to explain our problems. If we do a boycott, that's not a good way," Sherzad said.
Police officials have insisted their counterterrorism 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.
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/
Samantha Gross can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/samanthagross
Associated Press reporters Julie Walker and Chris Hawley in New York and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this story.