Group: State Department Is Wrong to Sponsor Imam Trip

An advocacy group fighting the so-called Ground Zero Mosque has called on the State Department to back off plans to sponsor the imam of that controversial mosque on an upcoming trip to the Middle East.

The State Department confirmed Tuesday that the administration is sponsoring Feisal Abdul Rauf's trip to Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which is described as part of a program to send Muslims abroad to educate other countries about the role of religion in the United States. Rauf made similar trips during the Bush administration.

Rauf and his partners are preparing to build a $100 million Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead.

The American Center for Law and Justice objected after learning about the plans to sponsor Rauf's upcoming trip. The group said it will file a protest letter with the State Department demanding the government halt its sponsorship of the trip.

"This shows a tremendous lack of judgment on behalf of the State Department; and for the American taxpayers to be funding this global journey is not only wrong, but deeply offensive," Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the organization, said in a written statement. "It seems with each passing day we learn more disturbing information about this project and the people behind it. We demand that the State Department put a halt to the Imam's participation in this publicly funded trip."

The center is fighting the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee over the mosque plans -- the group filed suit against the committee after it declined to grant landmark status to the proposed site. The tower could span up to 15 stories and will house a mosque, a 500-seat auditorium and a pool.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has forcefully defended the mosque construction project as a symbol of America's religious tolerance.

Rauf has emerged as a controversial figure because of his refusal to acknowledge Hamas as a terrorist organization, which is how the U.S. government classifies the group. The imam told "60 Minutes" in 2001 that U.S. foreign policy could be considered an "accessory" to the 9/11 attacks, though he said in the same interview, "Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam."

The State Department defended Rauf and the planned Middle East visit.

"He is a distinguished Muslim cleric," said State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley. "We do have a program whereby, through our Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau here at the State Department, we send people from Muslim communities here in this country around the world to help people overseas understand our society and the role of religion within our society."

The State Department has "a long-term relationship" with Rauf, Crowley told reporters, noting that Rauf had visited Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2007 and went to Egypt last January as part of an exchange program run by the department's Office of International Information Programs.

"His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States," Crowley said.

Fox News' Jake Gibson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.