NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf decided to build a Muslim cultural centre in lower Manhattan, the model he chose couldn't have been more mainstream American -- the Young Men's Christian Association chapters found in cities across the United States.
The institution he had in mind was the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish adaptation of the YMCA concept that is one of New York's leading addresses for residents of all religions or none to visit for public lectures, debates, concerts or educational courses.
But Rauf's project is better known here now as the "Ground Zero mosque," after the term for the World Trade Centre site. Families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and conservative politicians have mounted an emotional campaign to block it, claiming that locating it only two blocks north of the site was a provocation.
"We repeatedly say we are neither a mosque nor within Ground Zero, but they just shout back 'Ground Zero mosque,' 'Ground Zero mosque,'" Rauf, 61, told Reuters in an interview. The planned building will have a prayer room for Muslims, he said, but it would only be a small part of the 13-story complex.
Rauf said the YMCA, which began in London in 1844 as Christian centre for young working men and quickly spread to the United States and other countries, had long worked to promote understanding across religious, ethnic and social dividing lines in modern societies. Now called simply "the Y," its facilities across the United States offer exercise classes, education and community activities.
"We are trying to establish something that follows the YMCA concept but is not a church or a synagogue or, in this case, a mosque," he said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur, where he is visiting. "We are taking that concept and adapting it to our time and the fact that we're Muslims. It's basically a Muslim Y."
The plan won overwhelming support at two community board meetings in May after they heard the $100 million complex would include a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, meeting rooms, art exhibition spaces, bookstore and a food court featuring dishes from around the Muslim world.
But critics promptly branded the prayer space a mosque, as if the building would feature domes and minarets rather than the sleek modern lines its architects have designed for it.
Mark Williams, a spokesman for the conservative "Tea Party" political movement, alleged the centre would be used for "terrorists to worship their monkey god." Rick Lazio, Republican candidate for New York state governor in November's elections, said its finances should be probed for possible links to extremist groups.
The building now on the site, built in 1858, has been shut since landing gear from one of the Sept. 11 planes crashed through its roof. Critics of the mosque said that made the building a "sacred" or "historic" structure that should be preserved.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin weighed in on her Twitter feed over the weekend, urging "peaceful Muslims" to reject the project she compared to a "stab in the heart."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has firmly supported the project, saying: "The government should never, never be in the business of telling people how they should pray or where they can pray."
Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer who, like Bloomberg, is Jewish took aim directly at the Tea Party's Williams. "His spewing of racial hatred reminds me ... of Adolf Hitler. We reject him. We reject his bigotry," he said.
Many religious organizations in New York have supported the imam and his project. Matthew Weiner, program director at the Interfaith Centre of New York, praised Rauf as an active participant in dialogue among the city's religions. "There is no question in the mind of any religious leader who has worked with Imam Feisal about his honesty and sincerity," he said.
Rauf said the project "couldn't be more urgent than right now. One thing I hear all the time is, 'Where are the moderate Muslims?' We are moderates and we've condemned radicalism. But moderation doesn't sell newspapers."
The imam said Muslim communities in Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai were considering copying his project to help build bridges among religious groups there.
Asked why he chose to build close to the World Trade Centre site, Rauf said: "I've been in this community for the last quarter century. I'm the imam of a mosque 10 blocks from there. But we now have to hold three sessions of Friday prayers because the space is so tight."
New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission will rule next month whether the current building on the site can be torn down, but Rauf can't imagine anything will hold up his project. "The people supporting it have far outnumbered those opposing it," he said. "The politicization of religion goes against the American ideal of the separation of church and state."
Reporting by Tom Heneghan, editing by Daniel Trotta and Jackie Frank