Fundraising effort begins for Islamic center near ground zero as congregation donates $10,000

The developer behind plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero kicked off fundraising for the project Friday by raising $10,000 in just a few minutes from a congregation of Muslim worshippers.

Sharif El-Gamal announced the start of the funding drive at the conclusion of Friday prayer sessions that have been taking place since last year in the vacant Manhattan clothing store that is to be torn down to make way for the new center.

He said a new nonprofit group had been formed to guide and control the project — a formal step required before the capital campaign could begin.

El-Gamal declined to speak to The Associated Press before the announcement and left the building without speaking to reporters afterward, but his publicity agency confirmed that the nonprofit had been created and had begun raising money.

The proposed project has been denounced by many critics as insensitive to the relatives of people killed at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They say it is disrespectful to build an Islamic institution so close to the spot where nearly 2,800 people died at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Supporters of the center, which will include a health club, meeting and exhibition space and a Sept. 11 memorial, say it is unfair to blame all Muslims for attacks perpetrated by a small fringe group.

Conceptual plans for the center were made public last year, but its backers have long acknowledged that they were still far from raising the estimated $100 million needed for construction and additional millions needed to fund operations.

Organizers have mentioned having received some commitments for large donations, but they haven't said where that money might come from.

The questions about financing fueled worries, in some quarters, that the backers might turn to foreign, anti-American sources for money.

The Brooklyn-born El-Gamal and other people involved in the project have said repeatedly that they will work with U.S. government officials to make sure that all donations to the center are legal and proper.

While promising transparency, they also have refused to identify the members of the investment group that purchased the property for the center last year at a cost of around $4.5 million, saying only that the group consisted of Muslims, Christians and Jews.