WASHINGTON: The Muslim cleric behind plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York warned on Sunday that retreating on the project would only strengthen the hand of the Muslim extremists.
But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf did not rule out that developers would move the Islamic center, telling ABC: "The decisions that I will make — that we will make — will be predicated on what is best for everybody."
Critics say building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero is offensive to the memory of the nearly 2,800 people killed when Al-Qaeda hijackers steered two planes into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
The center, to be built on the site of a derelict clothing store, was proposed by Abdul Rauf as a way of giving Islam a new face in the United States and supporters see it as a place for reconciliation between faiths.
Thousands marched through New York on Saturday’s ninth anniversary of the attacks, facing off in angry debate under a heavy police presence as they protested both for and against the project.
The row was enflamed in the run-up to somber September 11 ceremonies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania by threats from an evangelical pastor to burn hundreds of Qurans unless the mosque was moved.
Terry Jones, the pastor of a tiny Florida church, later relented and promised not to proceed with the Quran-burning, but not before his incendiary threats had triggered violent demonstrations across the Muslim world.
Two people were shot and killed Sunday by the Afghan army in the eastern district of Baraki Barak as a crowd of up to 300 protesters chanted anti-US slogans and tried to storm the governor’s office.
Jones flew to New York at the weekend to meet with Abdul Rauf, but the imam has so far snubbed him and vowed not to barter.
"How can you equate the burning of any person’s scripture with an attempt to build inter-faith dialogue?" Abdul Rauf told ABC.
The imam said he would never have conceived the whole mosque project if he had anticipated the trouble it was going to cause.
"I’m a man of peace. I mean the whole objective of peace work is not to do something that would provoke controversy."
Now, he said, the "discourse has been, to a certain extent, hijacked by the radicals," making the decision on whether or not to move the mosque, "very difficult and very challenging.
"My major concern with moving it is that the headline in the Muslim world will be ‘Islam is under attack in America’," he said. "This will strengthen the radicals in the Muslim world, help their recruitment."
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is an avowed backer of the center, while President Barack Obama has been more circumspect, declining to say whether he thinks building the mosque is wise while defending organizers’ right to do so.
"If you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on a site," Obama said at a press conference on Friday.
Polls show a majority of Americans, and some 70 percent of New Yorkers, think the mosque should be moved further from Ground Zero.
Abdul Rauf said that if the Dove World Outreach Center — Jones’s tiny church in the Florida town of Gainesville with a congregation of less than 50 — had gone ahead with its Quran-burning ceremony on Saturday it would have been "a disaster."
"It would have strengthened the radicals," he said. "It would have enhanced the possibility of terrorist acts against America and American interests."
The imam said the Quran-burning threat and acts of vandalism at Islamic centers in California and Texas and a mosque site in Tennessee showed there was "growing Islamophobia" in the United States.
"The recent controversy, I think, has heightened the concern among Muslims, but we feel that there is a spike of Islamophobia which is reaching and perhaps even possibly exceeding what happened right after 9/11."
Abdul Rauf said it was important to stress that Muslims are "part of the fabric of America" and that contrary to the claims of Islamic extremists, they are free to observe their religion and "thrive in this country."
Obama at a 9/11 ceremony at the Pentagon on Saturday reminded a deeply polarized America that Islam was not the enemy.
"As Americans, we will not and never will be at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was Al-Qaeda, a sorry band of men, which perverts religion," he said.