Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wrote an op-ed posted on The New York Times website late Tuesday saying that the "ground zero mosque" -- a $100 million planned YMCA-like community center with a swimming pool, classrooms and separate prayer spaces for Christians, Muslims and Jews -- won't be moved from its site two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.
Rauf returned to America this week after traveling abroad for two months speaking about interfaith cooperation, including a two-week State Department trip around the Middle East. He said he delayed speaking out about the project until he returned home to the U.S. and could confer with leaders of other religious faiths.
"We are proceeding with the community center, Cordoba House," he wrote. "More important, we are doing so with the support of the downtown community, government at all levels and leaders from across the religious spectrum, who will be our partners. I am convinced that it is the right thing to do for many reasons."
The imam's comments were published just hours after some of the representatives he met in Washington addressed what they call a "growing tide of fear and intolerance" of Islam in the U.S. They spoke to reporters afterward, and were quoted by several news agencies.
"We know what it is like when people have attacked us verbally, have attacked us physically, and others have remained silent. It cannot happen here in America in 2010," said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Another Muslim community leader, Ingrid Mattson from the Hartford Seminary, said the Manhattan debate "challenges Americans to decide whether we're going to live up to our values of religious freedom and tolerance that's really been a hallmark of American society for so long." Mattson's and Saperstein's comments were excerpted by the NY1 TV station.
The controversy coincides this week with religious holidays of several faiths, as Jews celebrate their new year on Rosh Hashana and Muslims mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr. This weekend is also the ninth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In his op-ed, Rauf said support for his planned Islamic center "seriously undermines the ability of anti-American radicals to recruit young, impressionable Muslims by falsely claiming that America persecutes Muslims for their faith." And he called on Americans to commemorate the terror attacks' anniversary "by pausing to reflect and meditate and tone down the vitriol and rhetoric that serves only to strengthen radicals and weaken our friends' belief in our values."
But Jim Riches, whose firefighter son died in the attacks, said he was insulted by Rauf's op-ed.
"I'm outraged by his article. I think he's a wolf in sheep's clothing. He's got anti-American rhetoric all over it and now he's trying to act like Mr. peace maker. Well I don't buy it," Riches told the local CBS 2 TV station in New York.
Meanwhile, protests are planned for the 9/11 anniversary on Saturday in lower Manhattan.