NEW YORK — The imam who co-led the effort to build an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center has been given a reduced role in the project that made him one of the nation's most polarizing figures, the organization behind the plan announced Friday.
The nonprofit group Park51 said Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is set to start a national speaking tour Saturday and spends much of his time out of the country, was focused on other initiatives and didn't have enough time to spend on the center.
The group announced it had named a new senior adviser to help lead religious programing: Shaykh Abdallah Adhami, a 44-year-old scholar with an architecture degree known for his lectures on gender relations. It said Adhami would be among a number of imams with a role in the project.
Rauf helped come up with the idea for the center and his political connections won over influential supporters like the city's mayor.
He later promoted the center amid fierce controversy over its location, but he was never the driving force behind the plan. That role fell to the Manhattan real estate investor who controls the site, Sharif El-Gamal, who has spent recent months lining up financing and organizing the operation while Rauf served as the project's public face.
Rauf announced late this fall that he would be starting a global movement to oppose extremism and promote better relations between people of different faiths.
He will remain on the Islamic center's board and involved in the project, but Park51 said in a statement that it needed someone who could be more involved in the day-to-day business of building a local congregation.
"Due to the fact that Imam Feisal is focusing most of his energies and passion on launching this new and separate initiative, it is important that the needs of Park51, the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, take precedence," the statement said.
The group said that while Rauf's vision is "truly exceptional, our community in lower Manhattan is local. Our focus is and must remain the residents of lower Manhattan and the Muslim American community in the greater New York area."
Rauf's publicist released a statement saying that since he planned to spend the next few months traveling, a change made sense.
"Imam Feisal wants to meet the people of America where they are, to help build broader connection and understanding among all people of faith. To make that vision a reality, he is stepping back from the day to day details and operations of Cordoba House," the statement said.
Cordoba House was an original name for the planned community center that was dropped months ago by El-Gamal.
Rauf's continued use of the name was one of the many quirks of the complicated relationship between the two men. El-Gamal, who is also president of Park51 and controls its board, is a member of Rauf's congregation and has credited the imam with helping him find direction in his life.
Current plans for the center call for replacing a defunct clothing store two blocks from ground zero with a 13- to 16-story building that would hold athletic facilities, a day care center, art galleries, an auditorium for cultural events, a 9/11 memorial and a prayer space with room for a congregation of about 1,000.
Critics have assailed the project as insensitive, saying it is improper for a Muslim institution to be located so close to the site of an attack by Islamic extremists.
It is unclear whether Rauf's reduced role in the center will help or hurt its chances of getting built.
An unknown in the U.S. before the controversy, he emerged as possibly the country's best-known Muslim cleric and found himself listed alongside world leaders and celebrities as one of 2010's most influential figures, even as he was vilified by critics of the project.
Rauf, though, had also been criticized by some of the project's supporters for being absent at crucial moments.
Last summer he left for a long, State Department-funded trip to the Middle East just as the frenzy over the mosque was exploding at home. Then, he stayed silent for weeks, leaving mostly his wife, the community activist Daisy Khan, to respond.
His congregation in New York City was also small, and his life's work had revolved around interfaith relationships, meaning he often found himself working more closely with Jewish and Christian leaders in the city or figures in Washington or abroad, than with local imams.
Adhami has already performed guest lectures at the site of the planned center while Rauf has been away. One of his appearances there came in August, at the height of media coverage of the project.
At the time, Adhami seemed to take the crush of attention with nonchalance. His representatives invited reporters to cover his speech, only to have El-Gamal, who was unaware of the invitation, toss them out after they arrived. Adhami shrugged it off afterward as a misunderstanding and calmly fielded questions.
In a statement released by a Park51 publicist Friday, Adhami said he was being given "an extraordinary opportunity to be a key adviser on a project going forward that has enormous creative and healing potential for the collective good in New York City and in our nation."
Everyone associated with the project has had to endure intense, sometimes savage scrutiny, and Adhami is likely to be no different.
Born in Washington, D.C., he began his religious education as a child in Syria, and later earned an architecture degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He now lectures widely on issues of religious law, family and sexuality.