NEW YORK – The Muslim cleric who hopes to build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site said Friday that he'll tour the country in an effort "to inspire interfaith understanding" for a project that has ignited explosive faceoffs between supporters and opponents.
"The major purpose is to make people aware of what America means as a country that protects the right to freedom of religion," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told The Associated Press.
American Muslims like himself, he said, "can play an important role as interlocutors between the United States and the Muslim world."
Rauf's first appearance is scheduled for Detroit on Jan. 15. The city has North America's largest Muslim population.
The imam said he'll continue on to Chicago, Washington, San Antonio and college campuses including Harvard, Georgetown, Yale and the University of North Carolina. He did not release specific dates for his speeches.
Rauf said he expects the tour will end sometime in April; he's still receiving and considering invitations.
In a telephone interview — "on a cell phone while shopping," he said — he told the AP that he wants to make clear both to New Yorkers and people across the country the purpose of a project "about which I've been dreaming for 20 years."
He said the Islamic center would be modeled on Manhattan's 92nd Street Y — "a community space where people of all faiths can come to participate in everything from athletics to cooking classes, adult education programs, and panel discussions on issues of importance."
There also would be theater productions and film screenings, he said.
Last summer, Rauf's idea of constructing the high-rise Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero provoked a political firestorm that led to virulent demonstrations.
Opponents call it offensive to families of Sept. 11 victims and are demanding that the project be moved to another location. They say building a mosque near the site of the terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslim extremists is an affront to them.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed the center at the original proposed location.
Rauf noted that he's been "a member of the Lower Manhattan community for 25 years" — leading a mosque about a 15-minute walk from the site of the proposed new Islamic center.
In Detroit, Rauf is scheduled to deliver a keynote address to the so-called "Diversity Forum Banquet" of the Islamic Society of North America.
"I want to inspire interfaith understanding," he said. "This past summer, during the demonstrations, we also saw the birth of what we believe to be a global movement of people of all faiths who want to have a better future for their children and grandchildren."
Despite opposition to the Islamic center, the imam is viewed as a moderate Muslim sponsored by the U.S. State Department to travel on behalf of the United States, tempering extreme positions in the interest of world peace.
"It's a good idea to reach out to Americans and address any misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims," Zaheer Uddin, head of New York's Islamic Leadership Council, said of Rauf's speaking tour.