Ground Zero: Russian Offers $10M for Muslim Center Site to Build Chess Center

The president of World Chess Federation offers $10M "check" for mosque site.

MOSCOW, Sept. 17, 2010 -- The Russian president of the World Chess Federation is offering $10 million to buy the site of the controversial Muslim community center near Ground Zero in order to build an international chess center instead of the controversial mosque.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, also the president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, announced at a press conference in Moscow Thursday that he has sent letters to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Hisham Elzanaty, an investor in the Park51 site, on behalf of the World Chess Federation with their offer.

"I believe that international conflicts are extremely dangerous in complex times such as ours," Ilyumzhinov wrote in the letter to Bloomberg. "As the president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and as a person who has always supported interreligious understanding, I propose the construction of an International Chess Center at the suggested site of the mosque."

"My dream as president of FIDE is that chess becomes the only 'battlefield' between East and West," he added.

Ilyumzhinov told the Interfax news agency that his proposal is a solution to the "split within the American society" over the controversial project.

"What I am proposing is not to divide people on the basis of religion and ethnicity, but to unite the public around such a great game as chess," he said.

If accepted, he said, the center "will be built in the form of a chess figure, the king, of glass and concrete, which will decorate the city of New York."

Ilyumzhinov says that the offer of $10 million for Park51, also known as the Cordoba Project, was set because development mogul Donald Trump had previously made an offer "and we've decided to outbid him," according to news agency RIA Novosti. FIDE says the money would come from Ilyumzhinov himself and an unnamed investment group.

Trump's offer was blasted by a lawyer for Park51 developer Hisham Elzanaty as a "cheap attempt to get publicity and get in the limelight."

A New Bid for Ground Zero Mosque Site

"[Trump] knows what the value of the building is. If he were really interested in buying the building, he would have come forward with at least $20 million," the lawyer told the Associated Press.

Ilyumzhinov is instead appealing to a sense of community, offering free chess lessons for children and annual tournaments to raise money for the victims of the families of 9/11. FIDE spokesman Dr. Peter Rajcsanyi told ABC News that they view the purchase of the site as a "great opportunity."

"This type of solution suggested by President Ilyumzhinov would solve some of the key problems," said Rajcsanyi in a telephone interview from Budapest. "The chess center is an open opportunity to any member of the community so there's no segregation, no exclusion, etc. It's an entertaining opportunity [and] at the same time some kind of educational, learning process can also be involved."

Ilyumzhinov's home republic of Kalmykia is a predominantly Buddhist region in Russia's south. Ilyumzhinov made headlines in May when he told an interviewer about his 1997 abduction by aliens.

He recently announced that he would be stepping down as president of Kalmykia after four terms in order to devote more time to chess. But Ilyumzhinov is embroiled in a fierce battle to retain the FIDE presidency.

Former champion Anatoly Karpov is mounting a challenge, backed by chess legend Garry Kasparov. Karpov and Ilyumzhinov will face off in FIDE's elections in late September.

So far, neither Bloomberg nor Elzanaty have responded to the offer, but FIDE is optimistic.

"We expect a yes, an affirmative in a way that it would open up the negotiations between Mr. Ilyumzhinov and the owner of the site," said Rajcsanyi.

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