Park51 financiers express regret over mosque

They say the challenges facing the project extend far beyond the public debate over its location

Published September 9, 2010 6:45PM (EDT)

The backers of a proposed Islamic center near ground zero are expressing regrets about creating a firestorm with a plan they thought would be simple and noncontroversial.

Hisham Elzanaty, an Egyptian-born businessman who says he provided a majority of the financing to gain control over the two buildings where the center would be built, told The Associated Press that he has always viewed the project primarily as an investment opportunity, and would sell some of the site if the price is right.

And the imam slated to lead the spiritual component of the center told CNN that if he had realized how some Americans would react to the location, he would have picked some other spot.

"If I knew this would happen, if it would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn't have done it," Feisal Abdul Rauf said.

Both men, though, said they strongly support the center going forward. Rauf said moving it now would create the perception that "Islam is under attack" in America and would strengthen the ability of radicals to attract recruits.

The challenges facing the project extend far beyond the debate over its location, and include conflicting interests among the key backers.

Elzanaty said that while he supports the building of a 13-story Islamic center on the property he helped buy, he needs to turn a profit.

He said one of the buildings is worth millions of dollars if it is redeveloped, and he intends to seize the opportunity. He said he would like to see the other building turned into a mosque, but if backers don't come forward with enough cash for him to break even, he will turn it over to someone else.

"I'm a businessman. This was a mere business transaction for me," said Elzanaty, a U.S. citizen who has lived on New York's Long Island for decades, owns medical clinics in New York City and invests in real estate on the side.

Representatives of some of the project's backers said they have just started trying to raise the estimated $100 million needed to build the center and the millions more required to run it.

Elzanaty said his real estate partnership, which paid $4.8 million for half the site last year, has already received offers of three times that much to sell that parcel.

"Develop it, raze it, sell it," he said. "If someone wants to give me 18 or 20 million dollars today, it's all theirs."

If that happened, an Islamic center could still be built at the site, but at half the size.

A spokesman for the developer leading the investment team declined to confirm Elzanaty's claim that he has a majority stake in the partnership, or comment on whether he needs approval from the rest of the group to decide the fate of the two buildings.

New York Gov. David Paterson, who has tried but failed to entice the Islamic center's backers to move to a new location, said on WOR-AM radio Thursday that he appreciated Rauf's acknowledgment that ordinary people, and not just bigots, had been upset by the plan.

"I do feel the slightest bit of movement," he said.

The concept of the center was first broached publicly late last year by a group of backers that included Rauf, his wife and a real estate investor in Rauf's congregation, Sharif El-Gamal.

Together, they outlined a plan to demolish a pair of linked buildings and replace them with a tower that would hold a theater, a health club, a performing arts center, a culinary school and a mosque.

Since then, though, it has been difficult to determine who is in control. The key players in the development are represented by different publicity firms and different lawyers, and have varying agendas and no consistent message.

Rauf has been out of the country for months and his comments yesterday on CNN and in a letter published in The New York Times were his first since the controversy exploded.

El-Gamal has declined most interview requests. In his few public statements, he has portrayed himself, rather than Rauf, as the key organizer, and created a new nonprofit group to raise the money needed for construction.

It is unclear how much authority either man has to set the project's agenda.

The business transactions surrounding the project are complicated.

Half the site is owned by the real estate partnership that includes Elzanaty and is managed by El-Gamal, according to city property records. The other half is owned by the utility Consolidated Edison, but controlled through a long-term lease that Elzanaty said he purchased for $700,000.

Elzanaty said he still intends to turn that lease over to a Muslim group for construction of a mosque to replace the sometimes shabby places downtown where Muslims pray now.

As for the criticism that it would be inappropriate to build any Muslim house of worship so close to the trade center site, Elzanaty said he strongly disagreed.

"There is a public opinion that says no, but if you say no, you are defeated by the fanatics," he said.

Elzanaty added that he believed that his own parents were terrorist victims.

His mother and father were passengers on an EgyptAir flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. U.S. officials ruled that the co-pilot deliberately steered the plane into the sea. No group claimed responsibility for the crash, and investigators have discounted the possibility of terrorism. Egypt has claimed that mechanical failure caused the crash.

Still, Elzanaty said it is hurtful that some critics have accused him of secretly sympathizing with terrorists, given his personal loss.

Some of those detractors have pointed to a donation that he made in 1999 to the Holy Land Foundation, which was later convicted of contributing money to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Elzanaty said he believed his donation was being used to support Palestinian orphans, and noted that the foundation was on the list of IRS-approved charities until 2001.

"America is my country," he said, "and I will never do anything to hurt it."

By David B. Caruso

MORE FROM David B. Caruso

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9/11 Islam Religion