NEW YORK – A proposed Islamic center near ground zero is slowly being embraced by some Muslims who initially were indifferent about the plan, partly in response to a sense that their faith is under attack.
A summit of U.S. Muslim organizations is scheduled to begin Sunday in New York City to address both the project and a rise in anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric that has accompanied the nationwide debate over the project.
It has yet to be seen whether the groups will emerge with a firm stand on the proposed community center, dubbed Park51. The primary purpose of the meeting is to talk about ways to combat religious bigotry.
But Shaik Ubaid of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, one of the groups organizing the gathering, said he has a growing sense that some American Muslims who initially had trepidation are now throwing their support behind the plan.
"Once it became a rallying cry for extremists, we had no choice but to stand with Feisal (Abdul) Rauf," he said, referring to the New York City imam who has been leading the drive for the center.
Groups scheduled to participate in the summit include the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Alliance of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The private meetings were to take place at a hotel near Kennedy Airport, and the group was planning to hold a news conference Monday at the site of the proposed Islamic center.
Gauging support for the center among U.S. Muslims is difficult. As a group, they are diverse, ranging from blacks who found the faith during the civil rights movement to recent immigrants hailing from opposite ends of the globe. They rarely speak with one voice.
Yet after a pastor in Florida injected himself into the debate by threatening to burn copies of the Quran, U.S. Muslims stirred.
"I think most Muslims outside New York City are more concerned about the backlash than the actual center, which most of them will never directly benefit from," said Shahed Amanullah, the editor-in-chief of the website altmuslim.com and a group of other Islam-themed sites.
"Grass-roots support is indeed building," he said, "but that is probably more due to the pushback against the general hostile climate."
The center's proposed location two blocks from the World Trade Center site has upset some relatives of Sept. 11 victims and led to angry demands that it be moved. Critics say the site of mass murder by Islamic extremists is no place for an Islamic institution.
Rauf has called for the 13-story Islamic center to be open to people of all faiths, while his co-leader of the project, Manhattan real estate developer Sharif El-Gamal, has stressed its non-religious aspects, which include a health club and culinary school.
The summit comes as some supporters of the center have encouraged its organizers to include prayer space for Jews, Christians and other religious groups as a way of countering critics who say it will be a monument to Islamic supremacy.
Julie Menin, the chairwoman of the Manhattan community board that endorsed the project months ago, said she will meet with Rauf to discuss the interfaith possibility in the coming weeks.
"They had always talked about giving the center an interfaith concept," she said, "like having classes in Buddhism."
"It's one thing to have panel discussions, but if you really want to bring these factions together ... have a nondenominational interfaith space, like the chapel at the Pentagon, where local rabbis and priests could hold services on different days of the week."
There has always been some interfaith support for the center.
Its backers modeled their concept for the center after the city's two popular Jewish community centers and consulted at length with the managers to learn how to make their model work downtown, and reached out to some neighborhood politicians for support.
There was much less outreach to Muslims, Ubaid said.
Rauf, he said, may have been a regular talking head for the national news media on Muslim world affairs, but among New York City imams he was something of an outsider, Ubaid said.
"He was not that involved with the local Muslim community," Ubaid said. He said that included a general failure to round up support for the center before going public with his plans. "Had he consulted us, we probably would have told him, gently, no."
Even after the proposal became public, there was a hesitation by some Muslim groups to quickly endorse the idea, in part because of questions about its feasibility.
Questions about the project's finances have lingered. The investment partnership that owns the property, led by El-Gamal, quickly fell more than $224,000 behind on its property taxes this summer.
The city's finance department confirmed Friday that El-Gamal had begun resolving that debt Wednesday, turning over a check for a little more than $35,000 and signing on to an eight-installment payment plan to pay the rest.
El-Gamal said in a statement that the failure to pay was due to a dispute with the city over the assessed value of the property — an appeal that is still pending.
(This version CORRECTS that the first meeting of the national groups is scheduled for Sunday, not Saturday.)