New York: New York Governor David Paterson on Thursday revived his earlier proposal to move the controversial mosque near Ground Zero to a state-owned property.
Paterson was reacting to remarks of regret on Wednesday by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who told CNN`s Larry King that had he known the project would provoke such a controversy, he would not have proceeded with it.
The plans to build an Islamic cultural centre at 45-57 Park Place, just two blocks from the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade twin towers, have escalated tensions leading up to Saturday`s commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the tragedy.
Nearly 3,000 people died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in the September 11 attacks, including more than 2,700 when the twin towers collapsed after two hijacked airplanes were flown into them.
Paterson said he had hoped to refrain from talking about the controversy on a day the large New York Jewish community begins celebrating its holiday of Rosh Hashana.
But he said he saw the imam`s comments as an opening to settle the dispute using his original offer of state-owned land some distance from Ground Zero for the cultural centre.
"It was the first time that one of the supporters indicated that the opposition was not just coming from bigotry, that in other words there were legitimate people who were upset by this, who were not Islamophobic and just saw it as another unnecessary distraction," Paterson said in a radio broadcast on Thursday.
Paterson, who has been critical of the project, said other opponents - who include families of the dead - were "legitimate people" whose voice should be heard.
Feisal had turned down Paterson`s earlier offer of a land swap, and did not appear likely to change his mind.
On Wednesday, the imam admitted to Larry King that he had underestimated the fierce opposition. Feisal is head of the Cordoba Institute, which hopes to erect a multi-storey centre that will include a mosque, meeting rooms for Muslims, Christians and Jews, an auditorium, a gym and pool.
Feisal`s CNN interview was the first public appearance since the dispute broke out in July. He was travelling abroad on a US Department of State programme and returned to New York only last weekend.
But Feisal also remained firm on his decision to proceed with the project, saying that a retreat from the construction plans would play into the hands of radical Muslims bent on mounting attacks against the US.
"The story would be that the radicals would have taken over the discourse," Rauf said. "The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Wednesday found two-thirds of Americans think the centre should not be built in lower Manhattan, with most citing the sensitivity of the location.