NEW YORK – The furor over the planned mosque and Islamic center near ground zero has put Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in a curious position: At the same time he is being vilified in the U.S. for spearheading the project, he is traveling the Mideast on a State Department mission as a symbol of American religious freedom.
Some the imam's American critics said they fear he is using the taxpayer-funded trip to raise money and rally support in the Muslim world for the mosque.
"I think there is no place for this," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who is the son of evangelist Billy Graham and opposes the Islamic center and mosque. "Can you imagine if the State Department paid to send me on a trip anywhere? The separation of church and state — the critics would have been howling."
At his first event Friday in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, Rauf refused to discuss the uproar over plans for the community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has said Rauf understands that he cannot solicit funds for the project on his 15-day tour.
The $100 million, 13-story project is modeled after the YMCA and Jewish Community Center. Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, a co-leader of the project, have a long record of interfaith outreach and insist the center will promote moderate Islam.
Opponents have condemned the plan as an affront to families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, and the sensibilities of a nation still dealing with the wounds of the attacks. Some critics have accused Rauf of quietly harboring extremist views. The dispute has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and American values and is becoming an issue on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections.
In New York, Khan said organizers are sticking with their plan and are not considering scaling it back or changing locations.
"Dropping the plan is definitely not an option at all," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday.
Rauf has not commented on the controversy since it erupted earlier this summer.
During his visit to Bahrain, he led Friday prayers at a neighborhood mosque near the capital city of Manama, then said that radical religious views pose a security threat in both the West and the Muslim world.
"This issue of extremism is something that has been a national security issue — not only for the United States but also for many countries and nations in the Muslim world," Rauf said. "This is why this particular trip has a great importance."
He also said he has been working on a way to "Americanize Islam." He provided no specifics but noted that different interpretations of the faith have emerged over the religion's 1,400-year existence.
"The same principles and rituals were everywhere, but what happened in different regions was there were different interpretations," he said. "So we recognize that our heritage allows for re-expressing the internal principles of our religion in different cultural times and places."
This is Rauf's fourth U.S.-sponsored trip to the region, according to the State Department. He traveled twice to the Mideast in 2007 during the administration of President George W. Bush and once earlier this year. As part of his latest trip, Rauf will also visit Qatar and the United Arab Emirates during Ramadan to talk about Muslim life in America.
The trip is estimated to cost $16,000 and is funded by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs, which has existed in one form or another for decades. It aims to make friends for America abroad through cultural and educational exchanges that have involved everyone from dancers to scientists to leaders of different faiths.
Several American Muslim leaders who have traveled overseas for the State Department said they are often asked about discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. They said they acknowledge that prejudice does exist, but they also emphasize that many leaders of other religions, including Jews and evangelical Christians, defend the right of Muslims to practice their faith.
"There are times when the forces of religious division rear their head, but my point when people ask me about that is that religious freedom wins out," said Eboo Patel, an American Muslim who was asked to participate in the speakers program during the Bush administration.
Patel said there is no training by the State Department and no one tells them what to say.
Rauf will get a daily $200 honorarium for the tour. Airfare is included, as well as the standard government per diem for expenses and lodging in each of the cities he will visit, Crowley said. The per diem ranges from $400 to nearly $500.
Associated Press Writer Hasan Jamali contributed to this report from Manama, Bahrain.