N.Y. Mosque Imam's Words Get Closer Look by Critics

While leader of planned center is on Mideast tour, statements on Islam probed.

August 23, 2010, 7:59 AM

Aug. 23, 2010 — -- The writings and interviews of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the architect of plans for an Islamic center near ground zero, are being closely examined as he embarks on the first leg of a 15-day Mideast tour funded by the U.S. State Department.

The project, which is called Park51, has created a national debate over religious tolerance and sensitivity to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The proposed center -- housing a mosque, a swimming pool, gym, auditorium and other facilities -- is two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Critics charge that having a mosque so close to what they consider hallowed ground is an insult to the victims' families, especially because the attack was perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Rauf was born in Kuwait and grew up in England and Southeast Asia before coming to the United States in 1965. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a Muslim scholar who pioneered interfaith dialogue in 1960s New York.

He is the imam of a New York mosque just 12 blocks from ground zero and the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, the cultural organization behind the center.

He candidly discussed his beliefs with Barbara Walters during her 2006 special on heaven.

"The fundamental thing is you must accept God. You have to believe there is a creator. The Jews, Christians, whoever believes in God and does good will be saved," he said during the interview.

When asked whether he believed a suicide bomber went to heaven, Rauf responded: "One of the things that we are taught is never to say somebody will go to hell or somebody will go to heaven. It is up to God to decide."

In his book "What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America," he wrote however: "The truth is that killing innocent people is always wrong and no argument or excuse no matter how deeply believed, can ever make it right."

He also gave one of his most memorable speeches in 2003 at a memorial service at a prominent synagogue in Manhattan for Daniel Pearl, the journalist killed by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan. He said: "If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl."

N.Y. Imam: 'Terrorist Sympathizer'?

But the imam who has been praised for being a moderate -- he was even enlisted by the FBI to help train agents -- is also being criticized for comments made during an appearance on CBS' "60 Minutes."

"I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," he said in that September 2001 interview.

Critics called him a "terrorist sympathizer." However, his wife, Daisy Khan, appeared on ABC's "This Week" Sunday and said that his comments were part of a longer interview.

"In the longer interview, he talked about the CIA support specifically to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. ... In the '80s. The Soviet Union. And how this was, you know, in CIA terms, a blowback of that. That's what he meant."

When Rauf was asked whether the State Department was correct to designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, he said on New York's WABC Radio in June 2010: "I do not want to be placed nor will I accept a position where I am the target of one side or the other."

ABC's Russell Goldman and Ned Potter contributed to this article. The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events