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Cordoba Center imam Abdul Rauf's UNC speech attracts opposition

Admirers of imam Feisal Abdul Rauf see a charismatic voice of reason working to improve life for Muslims in America.

But his detractors see a rabble-rouser desperate to rub salt in the nation's largest wound by planting an Islamic house of worship near the site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York City.

It all should make for an interesting Wednesday evening in Chapel Hill.

Abdul Rauf, the leader of a controversial effort to build a cultural center, including a mosque, in lower Manhattan not far from the ground zero site, will give the 2011 Weil Lecture on American Citizenship at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Hill Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. It's a free event, but tickets are required.

A Christian group opposing the imam and his New York City plans hopes to steal some attention. The Virginia-based Christian Action Network has rented a ballroom at the Carolina Inn from 5 to 8 p.m. that night for a discussion and film screening about 9/11 families, followed by a candlelight walk to Hill Hall, where Abdul Rauf will be speaking.

Abdul Rauf is slated to appear at Duke for another public discussion Thursday.

Abdul Rauf is an advocate for the Cordoba House, billed as a center to encourage multifaith understanding at Park51, the cultural center proposed near the site of the World Trade Center tragedy. He will not be stumping or raising money for the project during his UNC-CH appearance, for which he'll receive a $20,000 speaking fee, university officials say.

Before Abdul Rauf speaks Wednesday, at least one 9/11 firefighter is slated to tell his story at the event sponsored by the Christian Action Network. The group follows Ab dul Rauf to many of his speaking events, often lining up events to counter his.

"The idea is not to let him get away with this nonsense," said Jason Campbell, the network's project director.

Campbell's group has zeroed in on the proposed Islamic center near ground zero. Plans call for a mosque as well as a fitness center, auditorium, restaurant, culinary school, library, art studio and Sept. 11 memorial. Critics claim it is primarily an Islamic house of worship.

"It's not a cultural center. It's a mosque," Campbell said. "This is nothing more than an act of triumphalism. They tore down two of our buildings, and now they want to build a mosque on it. And they're doing it on the graves of 3,000 people."

The project would be built two blocks from the ground zero site in a building that formerly housed a Burlington Coat Factory. There are churches, synagogues and other mosques in the area. There also are strip clubs, restaurants, at least one off-track betting facility and plenty of retailers.

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