The imam spearheading plans for an Islamic center near the New York site of the Sept. 11 attacks says America's sweeping constitutional rights are more in line with Islamic principles than the limits imposed by some Muslim nations.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told the Al Wasat newspaper in Bahrain that the freedoms enshrined by the US Constitution also reflect true Muslim values.
A portion of the interview — to be published Monday — was seen Sunday by The Associated Press.
Rauf is on a Middle East tour funded by the US State Department.
He has discussed efforts to combat extremism, but has avoided any comments on the rancor over proposals for a mosque and Islamic center near the site of the toppled World Trade Center towers.
Also on Sunday, supporters and opponents of the proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque rallied in downtown Manhattan, kept blocks apart by a heavy police presence.
The emotionally charged dispute has taken on national political significance, with Republicans using the issue to attack President Barack Obama ahead of midterm elections where his Democrats are fighting to retain control of Congress.
Protesting in New York (Photo: Reuters)
Hundreds of opponents chanted "No Mosque," sang patriotic songs and waved photographs of violent attacks by Islamic extremists.
One sign read: "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorists were Muslim."
Around the corner, supporters of the center chanted: "We don't care what bigots say, religious freedom is here to stay."
Among them was Ali Akram, a New York doctor, who said: "The people who say the mosque is too close to Ground Zero, those are the same people that protest mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island and Tennessee and Wisconsin and California. What radius will they go for? There's no end to it."
While tempers were heated, there were no signs of violence between the two sides, which were kept several blocks apart by police.
Obama has said he supports the right of Muslims to build the center near Ground Zero, while Republicans, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, oppose it. Others have suggested it be moved to a less controversial location.
AP, Reuters contributed to the report
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