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Investor in Manhattan mosque site talks of sale

By David B. Caruso
Associated Press / September 9, 2010

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NEW YORK — The group of Muslims planning to build a 13-story Islamic center and mosque near ground zero appears plagued by divisions that raise questions about the future of the project, with one major investor saying he is prepared to sell some or all of the site if the price is right.

Hisham Elzanaty, an Egyptian-born businessman who says he provided a majority of the financing to gain control over the two buildings where the center would be built, said this week that while he supports the concept, he needs to turn a profit.

He said one of the buildings is worth millions if redeveloped, and he intends to seize the opportunity. He said he would like to see the other building turned into a mosque, but if his community does not come forward with enough cash for him to break even, he will turn it over to someone else.

“I’m a businessman. This was a mere business transaction for me,’’ said Elzanaty, a US citizen who has lived on Long Island for decades, owns medical clinics in New York City, and invests in real estate on the side.

Representatives of some of the project’s backers said they have just started trying to raise the estimated $100 million needed to build the center, and the millions more required to run it.

Elzanaty said his real estate partnership, which paid $4.8 million for half the site last year, has already received offers three times that much to sell that parcel.

A spokesman for the developer leading the investment team declined to confirm Elzanaty’s claim that he has a majority stake in the partnership.

Dealing with potential conflicts among investors is but one of the challenges facing the group trying to organize the center.

The concept was first broached publicly late last year by a group of backers that included Feisal Abdul Rauf, an imam who leads a small Manhattan mosque. The group outlined a plan to demolish a pair of linked buildings and replace them with a tower that would hold a theater, health club, performing arts center, culinary school, and mosque.

Since then, though, it has been difficult to determine who is in control. The key players have varying agendas and no consistent message.

Rauf left the United States just as controversy over the plan was becoming explosive. His first significant public comments in months came in a letter published yesterday in The New York Times. In it, he said for the first time that the center would include separate prayer spaces for Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths.

As for the criticism that it would be inappropriate to build any Muslim house of worship so close to the trade center site, where victims of Islamic terrorists died, Elzanaty said he strongly disagreed.

“There is a public opinion that says no, but if you say no, you are defeated by the fanatics,’’ he said.

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