updated 8/27/2010 8:35:48 PM ET 2010-08-28T00:35:48

Muslim leaders in the United States are criticizing Gov. David Paterson for his description of the developers of an Islamic center and mosque planned near ground zero as peaceful, "almost westernized" Muslims.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council said Paterson mischaracterized the sect known as Sufi and his comment suggests other Muslims are a problem, although he made no criticism of Islam or any branches of it.

For weeks, the Democratic governor has defended Islam as a peaceful religion and has said the developers have a constitutional right to build an Islamic center and mosque a couple of blocks north of the World Trade Center site. He also has emphasized the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists were extremists and weren't indicative of the religion.

Opponents say the mosque should be moved farther away from where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people, while supporters say religious freedom should be protected.

Paterson, who has offered the developers state resources if they decide they'd prefer another site farther from ground zero, said in radio and television interviews Thursday that he had researched Sufi Muslims and they are "not like the Shiites," the second-largest branch of Muslims and the majority in Iraq.

"They're almost like a hybrid, almost westernized," he said. "They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice."

Paterson's use of "mainland" apparently was intended to be "mainstream."

Paterson didn't immediately respond to a Friday request for comment on criticism of his remarks.

Islam contains several streams that vary according to their interpretation of the Quran and Islamic law and their approach to worship, among other differences. Sunnis and Shiites, the followers of Shia Islam, are the two major Muslim groups whose spirituality has had a wide-ranging influence in Islam over centuries.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, which calls itself a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, issued a press release about Paterson's comments that said "while his attempt appears to have been an effort to voice support" for the project's organizers, "his statement sent a very negative message."

The group called Paterson's comments an "offensive mischaracterization."

"Governor Paterson's remarks reveal his disappointing lack of understanding about Islam and Muslims," the group's Washington, D.C., office director, Haris Tarin, said in the statement. "By calling Sufi Muslims 'westernized' and unlike 'mainland Muslim practice,' is he suggesting that all other Muslims — and specifically Shia Muslims — are the problem?"

Whether intended or not, Paterson's remarks implied that Sufis were the only peaceful Muslims, an affront to American Sunnis and Shiites who reject extremism.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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