The Muslim cleric behind the controversial Manhattan Islamic community center has received police protection because of threats and has been avoiding the city, according to law enforcement sources and other religious leaders.

Imam Feisal Rauf, who is planning to build the center on Park Place blocks north of Ground Zero, has received threats, which the NYPD has been investigating, police spokesman Paul Browne said Tuesday.

Browne did not know the specific nature of the threats and wouldn't comment on any security measures adopted by police as a result.

Rauf was conspicuously absent Sunday from a closed-door meeting of Muslim leaders in Queens called to deal with the subject of anti-Islamic sentiment, which has erupted over the proposed Park Place project. A spokesman for the clerics said Monday that Rauf stayed away from the meeting out of "security" concerns and didn't elaborate.

A law enforcement source who didn't want to be identified said Rauf, who lives in New Jersey, had been receiving some NYPD protection.

The last known public appearance by Rauf was last week when he addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan.

He reportedly also was a no-show at a court hearing last week in New Jersey over complaints about the condition of some apartments he owns.

Tuesday, the Rev. James Morton, former dean of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in Manhattan and a close friend of Rauf, said he believed the imam was under police protection. Morton said he had learned of the threats from Daisy Khan, Rauf's wife.

"He is not in the city," said Morton about Rauf.

A Muslim official who didn't want to be identified also said Rauf was staying away from the city because of threats.

Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, didn't respond to e-mail or telephone requests for comment.

A spokesman for Sharif El-Gamal, the developer involved in the Islamic center, also didn't respond to a request for comment.

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