NEW YORK – The imam behind the controversial plan to build a mosque and community center near New York's ground zero came out strongly defending the project in an op-ed published Tuesday night on the New York Times website—saying, "Americans must not back away from completion of this project."
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who recently returned from a State Department trip to the Mideast, said the community center will be open to people of all faiths, not just Musilms, and there will be separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Responding to concerns about how the project is being financed, he said the developers will "clearly identify all of our financial backers."
"My life's work has been focused on building bridges between religious groups and never has that been as important as it is now," Rauf said.
Critics, however, have said the project is at best insensitive to the families of victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, carried out by extremists in the name of Islam. Some have also attacked Rauf for past comments in which he was critical of American foreign policy and seemed reluctant to specifically condemn Hamas.
But Rauf said Tuesday that the attention surrounding the plans for the $100 million community center just blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks "reflects the degree to which people care about the very American values under debate: recognition of the rights of others, tolerance and freedom of worship.”
"The wonderful outpouring of support for our right to build this community center from across the social, religious and political spectrum seriously undermines the ability of anti-American radicals to recruit young, impressionable Muslims by falsely claiming that America persecutes Muslims for their faith," he wrote. "These efforts by radicals at distortion endanger our national security and the personal security of Americans worldwide."
The comments published in the Times were among Rauf's most extensive on the Islamic center since national leaders began weighing in on the debate earlier this year.
For months, the debate has focused on whether the plans for the center would include a mosque just blocks north of where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Opponents say the mosque should be moved farther away out of sensitivity for the families of 9/11 victims; supporters say religious freedom should be protected.
For the past two months, Rauf has been traveling abroad, including taking a 15-day trip paid for by the U.S. Department of State to promote religious tolerance in the Middle East. While on the trip, he occasionally spoke about the center, mostly to local Arab media. He returned to the United States on Sunday.
In the op-ed piece, he explained his reasons for not speaking out more and sooner, saying he felt it would "not be right to comment from abroad."
"It would be better if I addressed these issues once I returned home to America, and after I could confer with leaders of other faiths who have been deliberating with us over this project," he wrote.
In the nearly 1,000-word op-ed, he outlined his vision for the center, referring to it as a "shared space" for the community that will include "a multifaith memorial dedicated to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks."
"I am very sensitive to the feelings of the families of victims of 9/11, as are my fellow leaders of many faiths," he wrote.
Rauf is one of the directors of the nonprofit organization that was recently formed to raise money for the divisive lower Manhattan project, sometimes known as Park51. The imam referred to the project as the "Cordoba House" in his op-ed piece.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.