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New York mosque Q&A: leaders of project and how it began

Where is it?

The project is slated for two adjacent buildings at 45-51 Park Place, between West Broadway and Church Street, two blocks north of ground zero in Lower Manhattan.

What was previously in the buildings?

One of the buildings, at 45-47 Park Place, housed a Burlington Coat Factory that closed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The other, 49-51 Park Place, is a former substation owned by Con Edison. The building is being sold to the project's developer, Sharif el-Gamal, who rents it on a long-term lease. Both buildings are mostly vacant, but Muslim prayer services have been taking place in the 49-51 Park Place building since Gamal began leasing the property in 2009.

Is it a mosque or is it a cultural center?

The plan is for a cultural center that would contain a mosque. The center would house meeting rooms, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a restaurant and culinary school, a library, a 500-seat auditorium, a mosque and a Sept. 11 memorial and reflection space. The organizers have estimated that the mosque could attract as many as 2,000 worshipers on Fridays.

What would the center be called?

The founders originally decided to name the project Cordoba House, after the medieval Spanish town where Muslims, Jews and Christians joined together in a lively interfaith community. In response to criticism that the name instead recalled an era of Islamic hegemony, the planners changed the name to "Park51," after the address of one of the buildings.

Who is behind the project?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is behind the project. According to his official bio, Rauf was born in Kuwait and educated in England, Egypt and Malaysia. As a teenager, he immigrated to the United States from Egypt with his father, an Egyptian imam. Rauf received his bachelor's degree in physics from Columbia University and has a master's degree in plasma physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. In 1997, he and his wife founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which is billed in Rauf's bio as "the first Muslim organization committed to bringing American Muslims and non-Muslims together through programs in academia, policy, current affairs, and culture."

Rauf has been criticized for statements he made in a 60 Minutes interview after the Sept. 11 attacks. "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," he said, according to the Boston Globe. In a recent radio interview, he also declined to say if he believed Hamas was a terrorist group.

Daisy Khan: Rauf's wife. As a teenager, she immigrated to Long Island from Kashmir, India. She married Rauf in 1997. She worked for 25 years as an interior architect, her official bio says. In addition to serving as executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Khan also sits on the advisory panel of the Sept. 11 memorial and museum, according to a report in the New York Times.

Sharif el-Gamal: the chairman and CEO of SoHo Properties and the main real estate developer behind the project. He was born in New York to a Polish mother and Egyptian father, according to a report in Newsweek. Gamal is a member of Rauf's Manhattan congregation and was also married by Rauf. Gamal agreed to join the project in 2006, and in 2009, he bought the Park Place property; shortly thereafter, Rauf began holding services there.

Cordoba Initiative: a nonprofit organization founded by Rauf in 2004 to "cultivate multicultural and multifaith understanding across minds and borders."

Why not drop the plans or build elsewhere?

"Dropping the plan is definitely not an option at all," Daisy Khan told the Associated Press on Friday. She said organizers were not considering scaling back the project or changing locations, but are consulting with American Muslim leaders because they realize the uproar surrounding the center is affecting Muslims nationwide. "We know that we have the right to do this, but what is right for the larger community, or the larger good of the larger Muslim community?" she said.

How is the project being funded?

The 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 opinion piece published this month in the New York Daily News, Gamal 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.

Are there any mosques already near ground zero?

There are at least two other mosques in the neighborhood. The Masjid al Farah, where Rauf served as prayer leader until 2009, sits 12 blocks from ground zero. The Masjid Manhattan, founded in 1970, is four blocks from ground zero, on Warren Street.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

New York mosque Q&A: leaders of project and how it began 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 11:42pm]
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