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Islamic center opens near ground zero site

The developer of an Islamic cultural center that opened Wednesday evening near the site of the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center said the biggest error on the project was not involving the families of 9/1 1 victims from the start.

People crowded into the center, where a small orchestra played traditional Mideastern instruments, and a photo exhibit of New York children of different ethnicities opened.

"We made incredible mistakes," Sharif El-Gamal told the Associated Press in an interview in his Manhattan office.

The building at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, includes a mosque that has been open for two years. El-Gamal said the overall center is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he lives.

"I wanted my daughter to learn how to swim, so I took her to the JCC," said the Brooklyn-born Muslim. "And when I walked in, I said, 'Wow. This is great.' "

The project has drawn criticism from opponents who say they don't want a Muslim prayer space near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Islamic militants.

The center is open to all faiths and will include a 9/1 1 memorial, El-Gamal said. He called opposition to the center -- which prompted one of the most virulent national discussions about Islam and freedom of speech and religion since Sept. 11 -- part of a "campaign against Muslims."

Last year, street clashes in view of the trade center site pitted supporters against opponents of the Islamic center.

When the center was first envisioned, several years ago, activist Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, played a major, vocal role. But they soon left the project because of differences with the developer.

El-Gamal, 38, confirmed Wednesday that they parted ways because "we had a different vision." He declined to elaborate.

The couple said they had discussed plans for Park51, as the center is known, with relatives of 9/1 1 victims, first responders and others, including the possibility it could become a multifaith center focusing on religious conflict. But El-Gamal said he wished that victims' families had been involved earlier -- before the center became a point of contention.

"The biggest mistake we made was not to include 9/1 1 families," he said, noting that the center's advisory board now includes at least one 9/1 1 family member.

El-Gamal told the AP that fundraising is under way to complete the 15-story building that will include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center and artist studios.

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