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Muslim cleric open to new site; Backs away from plans to build Islamic center at ground zero location

The Muslim cleric at the center of a controversial plan to build an Islamic center near ground zero told The Buffalo News on Saturday he would consider another location for the project if a suitable site was offered.

"If someone is willing to offer another site, I would move," said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who was in Western New York to address concerns about the project. "I would move because my whole life is about improving relationships with people, and once the project is established, it will have an impact."

It was the first time Abdul Rauf appeared to back away from building the center two blocks from where the World Trade Center fell.

The proposed center has the required city approvals and the backing of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. But it also sparked months of escalating nationwide rancor over the appropriateness of a mosque near the site of the 9/1 1 attack -- culminating in a threat from a Florida pastor to burn the Quran.

Western New York families of people who were killed in the 9/1 1 attacks on the World Trade Center towers were among those who criticized the plan as insensitive.

But Abdul Rauf said he has spoken with families of 9/1 1 victims who initially opposed the center and changed their minds upon talking with him about its purposes.

The country has yet to heal from the terrorist attacks, Rauf maintained.

" 9/1 1 family members themselves have said they need to move the discussion in America to one of a mutual healing. And one of the things that's very clear is that we cannot have that discussion without Muslims at the table," he said.

>No offers yet

Any alternative site would have to be "on par, or even better," than the current proposed site in a former coat store at 51 Park Place in Manhattan, where Abdul Rauf and real estate investor Sharif el-Gamal sought to build a 13-story center.

So far, no such offer has materialized, Abdul Rauf said in an interview with The Buffalo News editorial board.

Abdul Rauf also acknowledged that he and Gamal have different ideas of what the project should be, forcing Abdul Rauf to re-examine whether it was still possible to fulfill his vision for an interfaith center at the Park Place locale.

"Mr. Gamal is more focused on the Islam aspect than on the multifaith aspect of it," said Abdul Rauf. "He came at this from the point of view of wanting to establish an Islamic center."

Gamal has referred to the project as Park51; Rauf describes it as Cordoba House, a reference to a historical period in Cordoba, Spain, about 1,000 years ago when Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life.

Whose vision will win out isn't clear. Gamal has a sizable ownership stake in the Park Place property, but Abdul Rauf is well-known internationally among Muslims and is currently on an extended speaking tour to raise interest, and possibly money, for the project.

"We believe that we will succeed in establishing this vision, whether it's at this site or another site," he said.

>'Muslim Y'

Abdul Rauf said he always envisioned a facility that's more along the lines of a Jewish Community Center, open to everybody for a variety of activities. He described the effort as a "Muslim Y," along the lines of the iconic 92nd Street Y established in 1874 by the Young Men's Hebrew Association.

Abdul Rauf recounted the example of a Christian friend who explained that while he had no reason to visit a synagogue, he could do plenty of activities at the 92nd Street Y, where he then learned things about Jewish culture and heritage he hadn't know before.

"That's the work that we (Muslims) need to do," he said.

But opponents politicized the effort and "basically rebranded the project," he said.

"They branded it as a 13-story ground zero megamosque," said Abdul Rauf.

The Kuwaiti-born Abdul Rauf, who serves as imam of Masjid al-Farah in Manhattan and runs a group called the Cordoba Initiative, said he hadn't proposed a mosque in the center.

"I didn't call it a mosque. I called it a prayer space," he said.

Abdul Rauf's apparent retreat on where the center should be built came just two weeks after New York media reported that he had been replaced by another imam to handle religious programming at Park51.

"I have had differences of opinion with Sharif el-Gamal and our visions are not equal, and at this point, I'm exploring whether it is possible to establish my vision in this place or to establish it in another location," Abdul Rauf said.

Abdul Rauf's stop in Buffalo was part of a national speaking tour that began in Detroit and will include stops on several college campuses, including Harvard University.

He was invited as part of the annual meeting of the Muslim Public Affairs Council -- Western New York Chapter.

New York's approvals of the community center brought about "an incredible amount" of good will in the Muslim world and "raised the hope that Muslims and Jews could actually work together," said Abdul Rauf, who has toured predominantly Muslim nations as part of the State Department's foreign visitors program.

>Downward spiral

But demonizing language used by opponents of the center "aroused hostility" and has sent discourse about religion into a downward spiral.

The U.S. and other Western nations aren't in a war with Islam, he added.

"The real battlefront," he said, "is between the moderates of all faith traditions and the extremists of all faith traditions."

Abdul Rauf also spoke Saturday night in the Center for Tomorrow on the University at Buffalo's North Campus, where he signed copies of his book, "What Is Right With Islam."

He told about 250 people that he and other organizers of the community center were ultimately encouraged by the debate that occurred.

"We learned a lot," he said. "What really warmed our hearts was the tens of thousands of people supporting us," he said.

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com