NY mosque imam: attention sparked by project is positive, hopes it will bring understanding

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The imam spearheading plans for an Islamic center near ground zero said Sunday the attention generated by the project is positive and he hopes it will bring greater understanding.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's plans for an Islamic cultural center about two blocks from the World Trade Center site have sparked a political firestorm in the United States. Foes of the project say it is insensitive and disrespectful to the victims of 9/11 and their families. The debate has become politicized ahead of November's midterm congressional elections.

But Rauf, who is on the first leg of a 15-day Mideast tour funded by the U.S. State Department, took heart from the dispute, saying "the fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success."

"It is my hope that people will understand more," the imam told a gathering at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. He did not elaborate.

The $100 million, 13-story project proposed by Rauf's Cordoba Initiative for the site some two blocks from ground zero is modeled after the YMCA and Jewish Community Center. It would include a mosque, a swimming pool, gym, auditorium and other facilities.

Muslims have been holding prayer services since last year in the building that the new project will replace.

The dispute over the proposal has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and American values and is becoming an issue on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections in the U.S.

President Barack Obama has said he believes Muslims have the right to build an Islamic center in New York as a matter of religious freedom, though he's also said he won't take a position on whether they should actually build it. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out in support of the mosque, calling it a test of the separation of church and state.

Rauf is in the Middle East on a U.S.-sponsored trip as part of an outreach effort to hold a dialogue between the Muslim world and America. He will also visit Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

In an interview with Bahrain's Al Wasat newspaper, he said that America's sweeping constitutional rights are more in line with Islamic principles than the limits imposed by some Muslim nations.

"American Muslims have the right to practice their religion in accordance with the Constitution of the United States," Rauf said. "I see the article of independence as more compliant with the principles of Islam than what is available in many of the current Muslim countries."

A portion of the Al Wasat interview — to be published Monday — was seen Sunday by The Associated Press.