City Councilman Bill DeSteph irked fellow council members and local Muslims on Friday by sending a letter to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg protesting a plan for an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site.
DeSteph wrote on city letterhead that "the citizens of Virginia Beach and the Commonwealth of Virginia" are opposed to the plan.
"Obviously, he doesn't represent the city of Virginia Beach just because he's a council member using that stationery," Mayor Will Sessoms said. "I'm very disappointed he would do that."
The proposed center, called the Cordoba House, would include a prayer space, a 500-seat performing arts center, a culinary school and a restaurant. The building would expand on an existing five-story building two blocks from where the twin towers, attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, stood.
"I'm not opposed to mosques or Islam," said DeSteph, an at-large City Council representative seeking his second term in November. "I'm opposed to putting a mosque 600 feet from ground zero. It's a slap in the face of every American."
Aziz Khawaja, president of the Muslim Community of Tidewater, said New York City leaders should approve the plan.
"It will send a message that the United States still believes in their forefathers by giving freedom of religion and freedom of speech," he said. "New York is a city that represents a diversified community."
He said DeSteph's letter represents a mentality that unfairly paints all Muslims as terrorists.
"Everybody is not a crazy," he said. "It's only a very small number of people who represent the extremists for which the rest of the Muslim world is criticized."
Part of the six-paragraph letter said, "We find it grossly hypocritical that Islamists and their allies repeatedly lecture Americans about the need to be 'sensitive' to Muslims" yet the people behind the plan "exhibit the ultimate display of intolerance and insensitivity through their disgusting proposal to build a mosque at 'Ground Zero.' "
DeSteph said he e-mailed the letter to about 4,000 people. He said he didn't receive any negative feedback.
"I'm not going to represent every single citizen out there, but I'm going to represent the majority of them."
He said he included the reference to Virginia residents opposing the plan because Virginia Beach is part of Virginia.
"That's a pretty broad assessment of your representation," Vice Mayor Louis Jones said.
Jones said he didn't know enough about the issue to have an opinion on it.
"I've found the best thing for me to do is to keep my nose out of other people's business," he said.
DeSteph said he will ask the City Council on Tuesday to support a resolution opposing the New York community center.
PDF of letter
And just for kicks, an article about DeSteph's 2008 Halloween costume.