Some religious leaders attending Mayor Michael Bloomberg's interfaith breakfast Friday expressed solidarity with Muslims upset about police department surveillance in their communities while more than a dozen leaders boycotted the yearly gathering that is meant to be a showcase of tolerance.
"I wouldn't like it to happen to my house of worship," Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin said at the breakfast of the spying program first revealed by The Associated Press. "I would be hurt if it was my faith group that was in this situation or predicament. ... I see it as the mayor choosing one faith-based group to target."
The absence of 15 Muslim clerics and civic leaders made little difference to the size of a breakfast roster that totaled more than 360, but it made their concerns about police infiltration of Muslim neighborhoods and mosques a topic of conversation for many.
Some worried aloud about what the surveillance meant for the privacy of their own congregations, while others dismissed the boycotters as agitators who were missing the point of an event meant to foster communication between religious communities and city officials.
"We just need to have dialogue. And if you don't sit down and have the dialogue, you're really not going to get very far," said Katherine Vizcaino, a Muslim who said the boycotters were "trying to make it a controversy where there really doesn't need to be."
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're not going to be able to have our own freedoms."
The mayor's comments were a disappointment for Hussein Rashid, an Islamic studies professor at Hofstra University who had hoped that Bloomberg would speak about the Muslim community's concerns. The mayor won the admiration of many Muslims when he spoke out last year in support of an Islamic cultural center and mosque planned near ground zero.
Hussein, who wore a blazer over a T-shirt reading "I am not a terrorist," said that leaders of all faiths at the gathering had been supportive when he spoke to them about the matter.
"I was able to talk to them about the fact that if I'm a potential suspect, by being next to me, you're a potential suspect as well," he said. "So this isn't a Muslim issue. This is a civil rights issue."
Hussein and others spoke to members of Bloomberg's administration at the breakfast in the hopes of setting up a meeting between city officials and concerned Muslims.
Rabbi Michael Weisser, who signed the boycott letter as a supporter but attended the breakfast, said he told several city officials "the administration has an obligation to fill in the gaps and talk to people" about the surveillance programs. All were receptive, he said.
Weisser views the surveillance as not just a Muslim concern, saying it echoes the targeting of Jews in Germany ahead of World War II. "If we can have rampant surveillance with no suspicion of wrongdoing, then everyone is at risk," he said.
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."
The AP series detailed police department efforts to infiltrate Muslim communities with aggressive programs designed by a CIA officer.
Records examined by the AP show the police department collected information on people who were neither accused nor suspected of wrongdoing.
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 tactics 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.
The police department has called the AP's reporting inaccurate, saying for instance that there was never a secret squad known as the Demographics Unit, which sent the "rakers" into Muslim communities. But internal NYPD documents later obtained by the AP and made public show the unit did in fact exist.
"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.