Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative,...

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, addresses the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. (Sept. 13, 2010) Credit: AP

The cleric behind the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan said Monday the project could be delayed as a way of cooling down the public furor it has sparked.

But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, sparked more controversy when he indicated that the street two blocks from Ground Zero where the center would be located shouldn't be considered hallowed ground.

During the Manhattan forum, Rauf said "everything is on the table. Our advisers are looking at every option, including that" when an audience member suggested a "time out" period for the project.

Asked by moderator Richard Haas, president of the council, how the furor might be quelled, Rauf said "we are considering all options as we speak right now."

Rauf said the area where the center would be located has not earned the revered status it has gained among those opposed to the center.

"It is absolutely disingenuous, as many have said, that that block is hallowed ground, with strips joints around the corner, betting parlors," said Rauf, referring to the Park Place address. "It is hallowed ground in one sense, but it doesn't add [up]."

Many Sept. 11 families strongly disagreed with Rauf, who took a few questions from the audience.

"I think that is the specious part of his argument," said firefighter James McCaffrey of Yonkers, whose firefighter brother-in-law Orio Palmer of Valley Stream died in the south tower. "Nobody attacked the World Trade Center in the name of strip clubs, no one attacked the World Trade Center in the name of betting parlors."

A Quinnipiac Poll yesterday indicated 63 percent of Americans also believe it is wrong to build the Islamic center so close to Ground Zero. McCaffrey stressed he didn't blame all Muslims for 9/11. But he believed that Rauf's building was actually a part of Ground Zero because it was damaged when a piece of a hijacked jet plunged into its roof.

For about 15 minutes Rauf described immigrating to the United States at 17, sailing past the Statue of Liberty.

"I am a typical New Yorker," said Rauf, "I am an American."

Rauf added to laughter that he was a New York Giants football fan, saying he was glad they won on Sunday, and sprinkled his talk with a number of football references

Still committed to his project, Rauf repeated comments he made over the weekend that he might not have pushed the idea if he knew it would spawn so much controversy.

Rosemary Cain of Massapequa, who lost her firefighter son George, said Rauf now has to find a face-saving way out of the controversy. She also believes the area around Ground Zero is sacred because of the ash cloud that spread when the towers collapsed.

"The whole area was covered in dust and covered in sacred remains of those innocent victims," said Cain.

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