WASHINGTON — The imam behind controversial plans for a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks is being sent by the State Department on a religious outreach trip to the Middle East, officials said Tuesday, in a move that drew criticism from conservative lawmakers.
The department is sponsoring Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's visit to Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where he will discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance, spokesman P.J. Crowley said. He said the imam had been on two similar trips and that plans for the upcoming tour predated the mosque controversy.
Two Republican members of Congress, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter King, called government sponsorship of Rauf's trip "unacceptable" in a joint statement. They said he had suggested in at least one interview that the United States was to blame for the 2001 attacks and that taxpayer money should not be used to fund the tour.
"The State Department's selection of Feisal Abdul Rauf to represent the American people through this program further calls into question the administration's policy and funding priorities," Ros-Lehtinen and King, who are the ranking members of the Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security committees, said in their statement.
Crowley told reporters that the the department has "a long-term relationship" with Rauf, noting that he had visited Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2007 and went to Egypt last January as part of an exchange program run by the State Department's Office of International Information Programs.
"His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States," Crowley said.
Rauf will not be allowed to raise funds for the proposed center during the trip, Crowley said.
Heated debate over ground zero mosque
The mosque, to be located two blocks from ground zero, would be part of a 13-story, $100 million Islamic center that would feature a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool and a gym. It's a project of the Cordoba Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes improved relations between Islam and the West.
The mosque has drawn vocal opposition from many relatives of Sept. 11 victims and local and national Republican leaders, including former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, is also opposed.
The debate raged on after a New York City panel decided earlier this month not to give the building at the proposed site landmark status, which paved the way for the project to continue.
Earlier this week, the city's transit authority agreed to allow ads decrying the plan on its buses. The display asks "Why There?" and features an image of a plane about to crash into a flaming World Trade Center.
'Immense amount of anxiety'
New York Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, waded into the fray Tuesday, offering state help if the project's developers agree to move the project farther from the site of the 9/11 attacks.
"I think it's rather clear that building a center there meets all the requirements, but it does seem to ignite an immense amount of anxiety among the citizens of New York and people everywhere, and I think not without cause," Paterson said during a news conference in Manhattan.
"I am very sensitive to the desire of those who are adamant against it to see something else worked out," he said.
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The developers declined to comment on Paterson's suggestion. Bloomberg declined to comment through a spokesman.
He said he was willing to intervene to seek other suitable state property if the developers agreed.
A local zoning matter
Crowley said the Obama administration has no position on Rauf's plans regarding the mosque and cultural center, which he termed a local zoning matter for New York. But he acknowledged that the State Department had posted a transcript of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Aug. 3 speech defending the project on a website that it runs for foreign audiences.
"We posted it because we thought it was useful for people overseas to understand perspectives on this issue," Crowley said. "We certainly support what the mayor was underscoring, which is the history of religious diversity and religious tolerance in his city."
In addition to the original English language version of Bloomberg's speech, the department has posted Arabic and Farsi translations of the remarks in which the mayor adamantly rejected opposition to the mosque.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.