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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Foreign Policy

Jake Gibson

Washington, DC

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US State Dept Sends Mosque Imam to Mideast

August 9, 2010 - 7:01 PM | by: Jake Gibson

WASHINGTON– State Department officials on Monday confirmed Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, will soon be going on a trip of the Middle East and the U.S. government will be picking up the tab.

The planned construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City has set off a contentious national debate over religious freedom in the U.S., drawing impassioned opposition from some families of 9/11 victims.

Rauf has emerged as a controversial figure because of his refusal to acknowledge Hamas as a terrorist organization, which is how the U.S. government classifies the group. The imam also has been quoted as saying U.S. foreign policy was in part responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

“He is a distinguished Muslim cleric,” said State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley. “We do have a program whereby, through our Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau here at the State Department, we send people from Muslim communities here in this country around the world to help people overseas understand our society and the role of religion within our society.”

Rauf and his partners are preparing to build a $100 million Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, where on September 11, 2001 two airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 innocents.

The project, known as Park 51, cleared a final hurdle on August 3rd, when decision by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared the way for construction. The tower could span up to 15 stories and will house a mosque, a 500-seat auditorium and a pool.

The State Department has not yet divulged a detailed itinerary of Rauf’s trip, although Arab media is reporting he will visit the oil rich states of Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi.

“It is to foster greater understanding and outreach around the world, among… Muslim- majority communities,” said Crowley. “We’ve done this many, many times, with many leading figures… over the past few years.”

The project has also drawn outspoken criticism from Sarah Palin who famously tweeted, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation. It stabs hearts.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has forcefully defended the project as a symbol of America’s religious tolerance.

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