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Imam Rauf Returns To U.S. Following Middle East Tour

NEW YORK (AP) -- An imam who has become the public face of a proposed Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero has returned to the United States following a taxpayer-funded tour of the Middle East, his wife said Monday.

Daisy Khan said her husband, Feisal Abdul Rauf, planned to comment later this week on plans for a $100 million center that has led to an increasingly vitriolic national debate over religious freedom and the sensitivities of Sept. 11 families. She said they would have no further comments until then.

Khan, who has been a supporter of the project and leads an interfaith center with her husband, said Rauf returned Sunday from a 15-day trip to promote religious tolerance in the Gulf. The trip, paid for by the U.S. Department of State, began Aug. 19 in Bahrain and included visits to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

During Rauf's trip, he rarely spoke about the debate over the Muslim center's planned location, just blocks north of where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people on Sept. 11, 2001. Opponents say the mosque should be moved farther away, while supporters say religious freedom should be protected.

In Rauf's last scheduled public appearance in Dubai on Aug. 31, he said the debate is over more than "a piece of real estate." It had, he said, "expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America."

Rauf is one of the directors of the nonprofit organization that was recently formed to raise money for the divisive lower Manhattan project, known as Park51. Early plans for the center call for a 500-seat auditorium, a Sept. 11 memorial and prayer space.

Rauf, 61, has been called the "spiritual leader" of the project by its representatives.

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. David Paterson responded Monday to a series of questions from reporters about the planned Islamic center by calling for a moratorium on the debate as the country observes the Sept. 11 anniversary and Muslims and Jews celebrate important holidays -- the end of Ramadan and the Jewish New Year.

"Perhaps we might think more in terms of supporting those families who are on both sides of this issue as all of us are and maybe all step back and try to devote a week of peace," Paterson said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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