In this Aug. 27, 2010 photo, Shaykh Abdullah Adhami speaks...

In this Aug. 27, 2010 photo, Shaykh Abdullah Adhami speaks in front of the Lower Manhattan site for a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York. The organization planning to build the community center near the World Trade Center said the imam who has been the public face of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, will be playing a reduced role in the facility and Adhami will replace him as its senior advisor. Credit: AP

The controversial imam who was the public face of an Islamic community center planned near Ground Zero is bowing out of an active role in the project, backers said Friday.

As Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, 62, takes a backseat in the Park Place project about two blocks north of the World Trade Center site, Imam Abdullah Adhami, 44, is taking on the role of senior adviser.

Adhami will be one of a number of Muslim clerics involved in moving the project forward, said officials of Park51, the nonprofit organization behind the community facility.

Neither Rauf nor his wife, Daisy Khan, 52, who attended Jericho High School, will be raising money from the project or speaking on its behalf, Park51 officials said in a statement.

Rauf became a lightning rod for protests by families of Sept. 11 victims and others who saw the project's proximity to the World Trade Center as an affront. The project includes provisions for a prayer space and quickly became known as "the Ground Zero mosque".

Rauf's reduced involvement comes as he prepares for a nationwide tour to increase "positive" dialogue among different faiths, Park51 officials said.

Rauf will continue to be on the board of directors but his other interests - such as the multifaith Cordoba Movement, an organization aimed at building trust among religions worldwide - were taking more of his time and pulling him away from New York, the organization said.

"Our focus is and must remain the residents of lower Manhattan and the Muslim American community," Park51 officials said.

"Imam Adhami is the perfect person to lead this project from a New York perspective," said Larry Kopp, a spokesman for Park51.

In a statement, Adhami called the appointment an "extraordinary opportunity" to help a project that had "enormous creative and healing potential for the collective good in New York City and in our nation."

Park51 plans to build a 16-story facility at 49 Park Place, an old clothing retail space, which will have a swimming pool, lecture facilities and meeting rooms open to the general community. A prayer space, known as musalla, will be in the basement.

The key developer is Sharif El-Gamal, a real estate developer who is still looking for financing, a spokesman said Friday.

Adhami had a congregation about two blocks from the planned center, but his congregation recently lost their lease. Adhami has been leading prayer sessions at the Park Place building, said Park51.

Adhami was born in Washington, D.C., and has studied in Syria, Morocco and Egypt.

The personnel changes didn't convince firefighter James McCaffrey of Yonkers that the center should be built.

"It is just a shame this is all going on," said McCaffrey, whose firefighter brother-in-law Orio Palmer of Valley Stream died at Ground Zero. "You are still taking a lead in what most Americans and 9/11 families are against."

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