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Mosque near Ground Zero: Frequently asked questions

Wednesday, August 18, 2010; 8:27 PM

1. Where is it?

The project is slated for two adjacent buildings at 45-51 Park Place, between West Broadway and Church Street, two blocks north of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

(Interactive: The view from Ground Zero)

2. What was previously in the buildings?

One of the buildings, at 45-47 Park Place, used to house a Burlington Coat Factory, which closed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (The top of the building was damaged by the landing gear from one of the planes used in the attacks.) The building is five stories tall and was built in 1857-58 in the Italian Renaissance palazzo style, according to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

(Full Coverage: The mosque near Ground Zero)

The other building, 49-51 Park Place, is a former substation owned by Con Edison. The building is in the process of being sold to the project's developer, Sharif el-Gamal, who now rents it on a long-term lease. The sale may have to be approved by the state Public Service Commission. Both Con Edison and the Public Service Commission are reviewing their records on the matter, and no timeline is set. Read more about the ownership issue here.

Although both buildings are mostly vacant, Muslim prayer services have been taking place in the 45-47 Park Place building since Gamal began leasing the property in 2009.

3. Is it actually a mosque, or is it a cultural center?

The plan is for a cultural center that would contain a mosque.

The project's organizers have said that the center would be modeled on Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, a community center open to all New Yorkers. The center would house meeting rooms, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a restaurant and culinary school, a library, a 500-seat auditorium, a mosque and a Sept. 11 memorial and reflection space. The organizers have estimated that the mosque could attract as many as 2,000 worshipers on Fridays.

(More on what would be in the complex.)

4. What would the center be called?

The founders originally decided to name the project Cordoba House, after the medieval Spanish town where Muslims, Jews and Christians joined together in a lively interfaith community. In response to criticism that the name instead recalled an era of Islamic hegemony, the planners changed the name to "Park51," after the address of one of the buildings.

5. What would the construction cost? How many jobs would the center create?

The cost is estimated at $100 million. The center would create as many as 500 jobs, a mixture of part-time and full-time positions, according to Park51 spokesperson Oz Sultan.

6. Who is behind the project?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is behind project. According to his official bio, Rauf was born in Kuwait and educated in England, Egypt and Malaysia. As a teenager, he immigrated to the United States from Egypt with his father, an Egyptian imam.

Rauf received his bachelor's degree in physics from Columbia University and has a master's degree in plasma physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

From 1983 until 2009, Rauf was the Friday prayer leader at Masjid al Farah, a Sufi mosque 12 blocks from Ground Zero and 10 blocks from the proposed center's site. The mosque, which moved to West Broadway in 1985 and still holds services, is in a small two-story building between two bars. Since 2009, Rauf has been leading prayer services at the vacant Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place.

Rauf has written several books, including "Islam: A Search for Meaning" and "What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West." In 1997, he and his wife founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which is billed in Rauf's bio as "the first Muslim organization committed to bringing American Muslims and non-Muslims together through programs in academia, policy, current affairs, and culture."

Rauf has been subject to criticism for statements he made in a "60 Minutes" interview after the Sept. 11 attacks. "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," he said, according to the Boston Globe. In a recent radio interview, he also declined to say whether he believed Hamas was a terrorist group.

Daisy Khan: Rauf's wife. As a teenager, she immigrated to Long Island from Kashmir, India. She married Faisal in 1997. She worked for 25 years as an interior architect, according to her official bio.

In addition to serving as executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Khan also sits on the advisory panel of the 9/11 memorial and museum, according to a report in the New York Times.

Sharif el-Gamal: The chairman and CEO of SoHo Properties and the main real estate developer behind the project. He was born in New York to a Polish mother and Egyptian father, according to a report in Newsweek. Gamal is a member of Rauf's Manhattan congregation and was also married by Rauf.

Gamal agreed to join the project in 2006, and in 2009, he bought the Park Place property; shortly thereafter, Rauf began holding services there.

Cordoba Initiative: A nonprofit organization founded by Rauf in 2004 to "cultivate multi-cultural and multi-faith understanding across minds and borders." Find the group's Web site here.

7. Why did they decide to build the complex there?

In an interview with Newsweek, Khan said that she, Rauf and Gamal settled on the site because it was large, had the right zoning and also due to its symbolism. "We want to provide a counter momentum against extremism," she said. "We want peace, and we want it where it matters most. This is where it matters most."

8. How big would the complex be?

The center would occupy 97,000 square feet, with an indeterminate number of stories, according to Sultan. The organizers are working to select an architect, a process that could take several months.

9. Are there any mosques already near Ground Zero (and, if so, how near)?

There are at least two other mosques in the neighborhood. The Masjid al Farah, where Rauf served as prayer leader until 2009, sits 12 blocks from Ground Zero. The Masjid Manhattan, which was founded in 1970, is four blocks from Ground Zero, on Warren Street. About 2,000 congregants currently worship at both mosques, Sultan said.

10. What is the history of the project?

The following timeline was compiled from news reports in the New York Times, New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsweek and other outlets.

-- 1983: Feisal begins leading services at the Masjid al Farah in TriBeCa.

-- 1999: Feisal tries to purchase a former YMCA on 23rd Street with the purpose of creating a "Muslim Y." The project fails because of financing problems.

-- 2005: Daisy Khan meets with Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for advice on how to build a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan.

-- Around 2006: Gamal, the developer, agrees to join the effort.

-- July 2009: For $4.85 million, a group of companies owned by Gamal buys the Park Place property, where Feisal began to hold services.

-- September 2009: At a Ramadan fast-breaking at Gracie Mansion, organizers talk with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) about the project.

-- February 2010: Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's staff suggests that the organizers voluntarily present their idea to Community Board 1, an advisory body that represents the neighborhood including Ground Zero.

-- May 5: Community Board 1 holds a meeting; it's the first public presentation of the project. The board's 12-member financial district committee unanimously endorses the project at the meeting.

-- May 6: Public outcry over the project begins.

-- May 18: Organizers of the project talk with supporters on a conference call and hire a crisis public relations firm.

-- May 25: Community Board 1 meets again. After a heated four hours of discussion, the board gives its approval to the project in a 29 to 1 vote, with 10 abstentions. The vote is an advisory one, however, with no power to affect the project's development.

-- Aug. 3: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission decides that one of the buildings on Park Place does not merit preservation, clearing the way for the organizers to apply for building permits. That same day, Bloomberg gives an impassioned speech on the project's construction.

-- Aug. 5: The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative organization founded by Pat Robertson, announces that it is suing the Landmarks Preservation Commission, arguing that the building merits protection as a historic landmark.

-- Aug. 13-14: President Obama makes remarks on the project.

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