The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the Manhattan site of the Sept. 11 attacks began a U.S.-funded outreach tour of the Middle East Thursday to talk about religious tolerance in America.
The U.S. State Department said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf arrived in Bahrain for the start of a 15-day tour in which he will discuss Muslim life in America.
"He will be visiting mosques," said department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "He will be involved in direct discussions to help people in the countries he'll visit understand the role of religion in our society, how American Muslims celebrate Ramadan, how we emphasize religious tolerance in our society."
The trip — estimated to cost about $16,000 — is funded by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs and will include visits to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Details of the imam's specific plans in each country have been closely guarded — possibly in reaction to the rancor in the United States over plans proposed by the imam's organization, The Cordoba Initiative, for an Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center towers.
Crowley said he would be recording short lectures for Bahraini television to take advantage the expanded audiences during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and could even address the controvery of the new Islamic center.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he talks about the ongoing debate within the United States, as an example of our emphasis on religious tolerance and resolving questions that come up within the rule of law," he said.
The department said Rauf will get a daily $200 honorarium for the tour. Airfare is included, as well as the standard federal government per diem for expenses and lodging in each of the cities he will visit, spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
The published maximum per diem rate for U.S. government employees in Manama is $396, in Doha it is $341, and in Abu Dhabi it is $496.
Rauf will not be allowed to raise funds for the mosque on the trip, Crowley told reporters.
Rauf's tour has drawn attention because of his plans to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan near ground zero. 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.
According to the State Department, it will be Rauf's fourth U.S.-government sponsored trip. He traveled twice to the Middle East in 2007 during the Bush administration and once earlier this year.