NEW YORK – The group of Muslims planning to build a 13-story Islamic center and mosque near ground zero appears plagued by divisions that raise questions about the future of the project, with one major investor saying he is prepared to sell some or all of the site if the price is right.
Hisham Elzanaty, an Egyptian-born businessman who says he provided a majority of the financing to gain control over the two buildings where the center would be built, told The Associated Press this week that while he supports the concept, he needs to turn a profit.
He said one of the buildings is worth millions if it is redeveloped, and he intends to seize the opportunity. He said he would like to see the other building turned into a mosque, but if his community doesn't come forward with enough cash for him to break even, he will turn it over to someone else.
"I'm a businessman. This was a mere business transaction for me," said Elzanaty, a U.S. citizen who has lived on Long Island for decades, owns medical clinics in New York City and invests in real estate on the side.
Representatives of some of the project's backers said they have just started trying to raise the estimated $100 million needed to build the center and the millions more required to run it.
Elzanaty said his real estate partnership, which paid $4.8 million for half the site last year, has already received offers three times that much to sell that parcel.
"Develop it, raze it, sell it," he said. "If someone wants to give me 18 or 20 million dollars today, it's all theirs."
A spokesman for the developer leading the investment team declined to confirm Elzanaty's claim that he has a majority stake in the partnership, or comment on whether he needs approval from the rest of the group to decide the fate of the two buildings.
Dealing with potential conflicts among investors is but one of the challenges facing the group trying to organize the center.
The concept was first broached publicly late last year by a group of backers that included Feisal Abdul Rauf, an imam who leads a small Manhattan mosque not far from the World Trade Center, his wife, Daisy Khan, who heads a Muslim nonprofit group, and a real estate investor who is a member of Rauf's congregation, Sharif El-Gamal.
Together, they outlined a plan to demolish a pair of linked buildings and replace them with a tower that would hold a theater, a health club, a performing arts center, a culinary school and a mosque.
Since then, though, it has been difficult to determine who is in control. The key players in the development are represented by different publicity firms and different lawyers, and have varying agendas and no consistent message.
Rauf left the U.S. just as controversy over the plan was becoming explosive. His first significant public comments in months came in a letter published Wednesday in The New York Times in which he referred to the center as the Cordoba House - a name that had been abandoned by other backers weeks ago in favor of the moniker Park51, which reflects the project's address.
Rauf also said for the first time that the center would also include separate prayer spaces for Christians, Jews and people of other faiths.
"I do not underestimate the challenges that will be involved in bringing our work to completion," he wrote, adding that construction has yet to begin. "I know there will be interest in our financing, and so we will clearly identify all of our financial backers."
Sharif El-Gamal, who had emerged as the public face of the project in Rauf's absence, has declined most interview requests, leaving critics free to speculate about who is behind the center.
In his few public statements over the past few weeks, he has portrayed himself, rather than Rauf, as the key force behind the proposed center, and created a new nonprofit group to raise the estimated $100 million needed for construction.
Yet it is unclear how much authority he has to set the project's agenda.
In one typical episode in late August, a guest imam scheduled to oversee Friday prayers at the site of the planned center invited reporters throughout New York City to come hear him speak. When they arrived, they were met by an exasperated El-Gamal, who instructed police to keep the media out, saying the invitation was unauthorized.
Until late last week, El-Gamal had declined to identify any of the eight investors involved in his real estate partnership, or say whether any had a controlling interest. Real estate partnerships in New York are generally not required to disclose their membership to the public. On Friday, he acknowledged for the first time in response to media inquiries that Elzanaty was a major contributor.
After speaking with Elzanaty on Tuesday, the AP contacted El-Gamal's spokesman, Larry Kopp, to see if he could confirm Elzanaty's statements that he is the principal investor in the project and has the final say over what happens to the real estate. Kopp said El-Gamal wouldn't comment on the ownership issues.
The business transactions surrounding the project are complicated.
Half the site is owned by the real estate partnership that includes Elzanaty and is managed by El-Gamal, according to city property records. The other half is owned by the utility Consolidated Edison, but controlled through a long-term lease that another real estate entity purchased for $700,000 last year. Elzanaty said he put up all of that money and thus controls the lease, which allows its holder to tear down the building and construct something new.
Elzanaty said that while he would love to see the entire site become a center that would replace the sometimes shabby places downtown where Muslims pray now, the project can't come at the expense of his investment.
As for the criticism that it would be inappropriate to build any Muslim house of worship so close to the trade center site, where victims of Islamic terrorists died, Elzanaty said he strongly disagreed.
"There is a public opinion that says no, but if you say no, you are defeated by the fanatics," he said.
Elzanaty added that he believed that his own parents were victims of terrorism.
His mother and father were passengers on an EgyptAir flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. U.S. officials ruled that the co-pilot deliberately steered the plane into the sea. No group claimed responsibility for the crash, and investigators have discounted the possibility of terrorism. Egypt has claimed that mechanical failure caused the crash.
Still, Elzanaty said it is hurtful that some critics of the mosque project have accused him of secretly sympathizing with terrorists, given his personal loss.
Some of those detractors have pointed to a donation that he made in 1999 to the Holy Land Foundation, which was later indicted on charges of contributing money to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Five leaders of the foundation were recently convicted of illegally supporting Hamas.
Elzanaty said he believed his donation was being used to support Palestinian orphans, and noted that the U.S. government had the foundation on its list of IRS-approved charities until 2001.
"America is my country," he said, "and I will never do anything to hurt it."