It is "unethical, insensitive and inhumane" to oppose the planned mosque near ground zero, more than 50 leading Muslim organizations said Wednesday as they cast the intense debate as a symptom of religious intolerance in America.

The imam behind the project, meanwhile, was preparing to return to the U.S. after a taxpayer-funded good will tour to the Mideast, where he said the debate is about much more than "a piece of real estate." Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf sidestepped questions about whether he would consider moving the $100 million mosque and Islamic community center farther from where Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Instead, he stressed the need to embrace religious and political freedoms in the United States.

Leaders of the Majlis Ash-Shura of Metropolitan New York, an Islamic leadership council that represents a broad spectrum of Muslims in the city, gathered on the steps of City Hall to issue a statement calling for a stop to religious intolerance and affirming the right of the center's developers to build two blocks north of the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We support the right of our Muslim brothers who wish to build that center there," said Imam Al Amin Abdul Latif, president of the Majlis Ash-Shura. "However, the bigger issue and the broader issue is the issue of ethnic and religious hatred being spread by groups trying to stop the building of mosques and Islamic institutions across the country."

This is the first time that the council as a body has spoken out on the weeks-old debate over the proposed center.

"When the issue became hotter and hotter, and people made more statements against the mosques, then we decided to get involved in it," said Syed Sajid Husain, secretary general of the council. He said the process of bringing together the leaders to agree on a statement also took a handful of meetings.

Leaders of the council said they were calling attention to what they claimed was an anti-Islamic climate, and that the development of a center near ground zero is simply one example.

They also cited a suspicious fire that damaged construction equipment at the site of a future mosque in Tennessee that is being investigated by the FBI, and the successful opposition to the proposed conversion of a property owned by a Catholic Church into a mosque and community center on Staten Island, a New York City borough off the southern tip of Manhattan.

Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor of New York who has opposed the mosque in lower Manhattan, has said criticism is "not an issue of religion." Like many critics, he has said it is an issue of being sensitive to the families of 9/11 victims and transparency regarding the center's funding.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed 71 percent of New Yorkers want the developers to voluntarily move the project.

Islamic leaders on Wednesday said they would support a move to another location, if that's what the imam and his supporters choose to do. But they emphasized that Muslims also were killed in the terrorist attacks and were first responders.

"We declare unethical, insensitive and inhumane, the notion that our co-religionists are not entitled to the respect of a place of worship according to their faith, near the location where men and women of our religion worked, lived and died — just like other people," the group's statement said in part.

The group is not associated with the planned Islamic center but is representative of a significant number of New York Muslim leaders.

Rauf has been on a U.S. State Department-sponsored interfaith tour of the Middle East for several weeks and is currently in the United Arab Emirates, said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C. Rauf was expected to return to the U.S. on Thursday.

The imam told a group that included professors and policy researchers in Dubai on Tuesday that the dispute over the mosque "has expanded beyond a piece of real estate and expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America."

Rauf is named as a director of a recently formed nonprofit organization spearheading efforts to raise money for the project, along with a core group of developers that own the property where the center would be established. The developers say they are negotiating with the city to reduce and pay back over $225,000 in back taxes owed on the property.

Early plans for the Islamic center near ground zero call for a swimming pool, a Sept. 11 memorial open to the public and a prayer space.


Associated Press Writers Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., and Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.