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Imam behind controversial New York Islamic center speaks

From Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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Imam addresses ground zero plan
  • Abdul Rauf said he wants to promote "harmony and understanding"
  • He spoke Sunday to a Bahraini newspaper
  • Rauf is on a State Department sponsored trip of the Middle East

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- The imam behind the controversial mosque and Islamic center near New York City's ground zero said Sunday that he hopes the project will develop "an Islamic approach that allows for harmony and understanding among all religions and other ideas."

The remarks from Abdul Rauf, who has rarely spoken to the media since his proposal for an Islamic center set off a firestorm of controversy this summer, came while the imam is on a State Department-sponsored trip to the Middle East.

Rauf spoke with the newspaper Bahraini Al Wasat before he was scheduled to appear at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Bahrain, the newspaper's editor said.

In the interview, to be published Monday, Rauf praised freedoms that Muslims and others enjoy in the United States.

"If we look at the American Declaration of Independence, we see that it speaks of principles that comply with Islam," Rauf said, according to Bahraini Al Wasat editor-in-chief Mansoor Al-Jamri. "The U.S. Constitution protects our rights and what exists in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is much better than what is found in many Islamic countries."

Rauf is on his third trip to discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said earlier this month.

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"We have a long-term relationship with him," Crowley said. "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 the imam's trip would take him to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia. His previous trips under the government program were in 2007 to Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Morocco, and earlier this year to Egypt.

The trip is one of about 1,200 similar programs of sending experts overseas, Crowley said.

Some lawmakers have urged the State Department to rethink plans to sponsor Rauf on trips abroad.

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, and Peter King, R-New York, the ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security committees, called the State Department's funding of Rauf's current trip "unacceptable," and said American taxpayers should not have to subsidize his tour.

In New York on Sunday, opponents of the planned Islamic community center faced off with demonstrators in favor of the facility.

Hundreds of critics and supporters of the proposed center in New York showed up despite an overcast and drizzly sky to express their views amid the national debate over the facility.

Police estimated that supporters of the center numbered up to 250, and critics numbered about 450 during the demonstration.

A banner on the anti-center side said, "Land of the free. Stop sharia before it stops you," referring to Islamic law. Another sign read, "No mosque here. Preserve the dignity of our loved ones killed on 9/11."

Others said Americans need to set an example of tolerance to the rest of the world.

"It would be giving in to bigotry and intolerance to demand that it be moved and I think in the end, it makes us less safe because we need to show the world that we are a tolerant, open society," supporter Ruth Massie said.