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Originally published August 16, 2010 at 6:55 PM | Page modified August 16, 2010 at 10:37 PM

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Cleric behind planned mosque has alarmed some with remarks

Add another election-year hurdle for Democrats: President Obama's forceful defense of the right of Muslims to build a mosque near the 9/11 site.

Interactive | Controversy over proposed mosque

An Islamic Center including a mosque is proposed for a site in lower Manhattan that's two blocks from where Muslim extremists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and killed nearly 2,800 people. The project has ignited passions and turned into a major political issue. Some questions and answers:

Q: Who is behind the project?

A: The project is called Park51 and is a product of the Cordoba Initiative, a nonprofit organization headed by the Muslim cleric Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. The group aims to improve relations between Islam and the West by hosting leadership conferences for young American Muslims, organizing programs on Arab-Jewish relations, and empowering Muslim women.

Rauf, 62, was born in Kuwait and educated in Malaysia, London and the U.S. He's a prolific speaker and author of several books about the role of Islam in the modern world, including "What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West." He serves as imam of a mosque in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, also not far from Ground Zero.

The State Department recently sent Rauf on a religious outreach trip to the Middle East, one of several he has made on behalf of the U.S. government since 2007.

While he promotes himself as a moderate bridge builder, Rauf has made comments over the years that have alarmed some observers and helped fuel opposition to the proposed project.

In a CBS News interview shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rauf said, "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." In a radio interview this year, he refused to call the radical Islamic group Hamas a terrorist organization, saying "the issue of terrorism is a very complex question."

Q: Is it just a mosque?

A: The developers have planned a 13-story, $100 million Islamic community center, complete with a pool, gym and 500-seat auditorium, of which the mosque would be a part.

Q: Where exactly will it be located?

A: The address is 45-47 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. The building, which once housed a Burlington Coat Factory store, was closed after being damaged by debris from the attacks. SoHo Properties, a private real-estate development company and partner in the Islamic center project, bought the building in 2009 for $4.85 million. Muslim prayer services have been held each week there since then.

Q: Why did the developers choose this site, given its proximity to Ground Zero?

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A: In an interview with The Associated Press in May, Khan said the growing number of congregants at the only other mosque nearby created a need for an additional Islamic center in the neighborhood. Khan also said the project was a way to showcase the efforts of moderate, peace-seeking Muslims and their involvement in the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.

"We want to create a platform by which the voices of the mainstream and silent majority of Muslims will be amplified. A center of this scale and magnitude will do that," Khan said.

Q: Can opponents of Park51 prevent its construction?

A: Not really. It's private property, and the developers own the building. The street is zoned to accommodate houses of worship. The project cleared its last potential regulatory hurdle when the city's Landmarks Commission voted unanimously not to designate the building a historic landmark, clearing the way for it to be demolished and for construction of the Islamic center to begin.

Barring any unexpected legal or regulatory obstacles, opponents' best hope to stop the project would be through a public-relations campaign urging the developers to move it elsewhere out of respect for victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families. Gov. David Paterson, who supports the project, said he might offer state property if the developers were willing to construct it farther from Ground Zero.

Q: How is the project being funded?

A: Funding is a major issue for some opponents, who say the developers have not been transparent enough about their financial patrons. Opponents have also dropped hints that they worry about ties to terrorist money, but have not furnished evidence to support that concern.

In an op-ed piece published this month in the New York Daily News, Sharif El-Gamal, the owner of SoHo Properties, said fundraising efforts for the project were just getting started and would be handled with great vigilance.

"We pledge to all New Yorkers and all Americans that we'll work under all applicable laws and regulations. By no means will we accept support from persons with anti-American views or agendas," he wrote.

Q: What is the timeline for building the center?

A: Park51 spokesman Oz Sultan has said there was no timeline for starting demolition of the existing structure or construction. Once the old building is demolished, building the community center is expected to take 18 to 48 months.

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