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U.S. to send imam in ground zero debate to Middle East

From Elise Labott, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Imam Rauf is at center of efforts to build a mosque near site of New York attack
  • The State Department is funding the imam's trip to the Middle East
  • Spokesman: Imam will not be allowed to raise funds during the trip

(CNN) -- Some lawmakers have urged the State Department to rethink plans to sponsor the imam behind a controversial mosque on a trip to the Middle East.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is at the center of efforts to build a mosque near the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York. He is going to the Middle East on a trip funded by the State Department.

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

"The State Department's selection of Feisal Abdul Rauf to represent the American people through this program further calls into question the administration's policy and funding priorities," the statement said, noting the Imam has suggested in interviews that America was to blame for the September 11 attacks.

It's Rauf's third trip to discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

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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, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. 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.

"Last year we had, you know, 52 trips that were specifically focused on promoting religious tolerance," he said.

Crowley said the imam would not be allowed to raise funds on the trip.

The controversial plan includes a mosque two blocks from the site of the terror attacks as part of a $100 million, 13-story Islamic center. The project is led by the advocacy group the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes better relations between Muslims and the West.

The mosque has drawn opposition from many families of the September 11 victims, as well as members of Congress and the Jewish civil rights group the Anti-Defamation League. Some have argued building a mosque near ground zero is disrespectful to the victims of the attacks.

Crowley said the Obama administration is not taking a position on the merits of the mosque or the Islamic center, which he called a zoning matter for the city of New York.

But the State Department posted a transcript of comments by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg objecting to opposition for the mosque on a website it runs for foreign audiences, including Arab and Farsi translations.

"We thought it was useful for people overseas to understand perspectives on this issue," Crowley said in defending the posting. "We certainly support what the mayor was underscoring, which is the history of religious diversity and religious tolerance in his city."

He added that Rauf's trip was planned well before the plans for the mosque were developed.

 
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