- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

NEW YORK — The developer of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero says the “biggest mistake” on the project was not involving the families of Sept. 11 victims from the start.

“We made incredible mistakes,” Sharif El-Gamal told the Associated Press in an interview in his Manhattan office.

The Park51 Islamic community center, at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, opened to the public Wednesday night with a photo exhibit of New York children representing 160 ethnicities.

Mr. El-Gamal said that Park51, which includes a mosque, is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives.

“I wanted my daughter to learn how to swim, so I took her to the JCC,” said the New Jersey-born Muslim. “And when I walked in, I said, ‘Wow. This is great.’ “

The project has drawn criticism from opponents who say they don’t want a Muslim prayer space near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. El-Gamal says the center is open to all faiths and will include a 9/11 memorial. He called opposition to the center part of a “campaign against Muslims.”

When the center was first envisioned several years ago, activist Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, played a major, vocal role. But they soon left the project because of differences with the developer.

Mr. El-Gamal confirmed Wednesday that they parted ways because “we had a different vision.” He declined to elaborate.

The couple said they had discussed Park51 plans with relatives of 9/11 victims, first responders and others, including the possibility that it could become a multifaith center focusing on religious conflict. But Mr. El-Gamal wishes victims’ families had been involved earlier, before the center became a point of contention.

“The biggest mistake we made was not to include 9/11 families,” Mr. El-Gamal said, noting that the center’s growing board now includes at least one such family member.

Pointing to the inclusivity of a center that critics feared would be polarizing, Mr. El-Gamal pointed out that the featured photographer in the “NYChildren” exhibit is Danny Goldfield, who is Jewish.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer was inspired to create the exhibit by the story of Rana Sodhi, a Sikh who immigrated from India and settled in Arizona. His brother was killed in a retaliatory hate crime four days after Sept. 11, 2001.

Noting that Islam, Judaism and Christianity overlap in history and literature, Mr. El-Gamal said, “In order to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good Jew and a good Christian.”

The 38-year-old developer owns the land for the project, which prompted one of the most virulent national discussions about Islam and freedom of speech and religion since the terrorist attacks. Last year, street clashes in view of the trade center site pitted supporters against opponents of the center.

Mr. El-Gamal told the AP that fundraising is under way to complete the 15-story building that also is to include a theater, educational programs, a pool and a restaurant.

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