WASHINGTON — The imam behind controversial plans for a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks is being sent by the State Department on a religious outreach trip to the Middle East, officials said Tuesday.
The department is sponsoring Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's visit to Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where he will discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. He said that the imam had been on two similar trips and that plans for the forthcoming tour predated the mosque controversy.
"We have a long-term relationship with him," Crowley told reporters, noting that Rauf had visited Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2007 and went to Egypt in January as part of an exchange program run by the department's Office of International Information Programs.
"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.
Crowley said that during the trip, Rauf will not be allowed to raise funds for the proposed Islamic center and mosque about two blocks from ground zero that has drawn opposition from some who say a mosque near the site is disrespectful to those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Crowley said the Obama administration has no position on Rauf's plans for the mosque, which he termed a local zoning matter for New York. But he acknowledged that the State Department had posted a transcript of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Aug. 3 speech defending the project on a website, America.gov, that it runs for foreign audiences.
"We posted it because we thought it was useful for people overseas to understand perspectives on this issue," he said.
Governor's offer: New York Gov. David Paterson offered state help Tuesday if the developers of the mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks agree to move the project farther from the site. Paterson, a Democrat, said that he doesn't oppose the project, but was willing to intervene to seek other suitable property if the developers agreed to relocate.