DETROIT (AP) - The cleric who became the public face of efforts to build an Islamic center near ground zero in New York began a national speaking tour Saturday night by urging Muslims to help "depoliticize" their faith and play a role in shaping relationships with America.
Feisal Abdul Rauf began his tour to inspire "interfaith understanding" in Detroit, saying Islam should be seen as an American religion "not an alien religion." The Detroit area is home to the largest Muslim population in North America.
The imam told about 400 people at a diversity forum sponsored by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan and the Islamic Society of North America that the backlash against Islam that arose from the New York City mosque plan was "triggered by a mix of race, religion and politics in America."
"Our role now is to depoliticize our faith," he said, adding that Islam must not be used as a wedge between Democrats and Republicans or political ideals anywhere in the world.
"What we do here in America, brothers and sisters, is watched by the world," Rauf said. "We have to find ways to make sure who we are and what we represent becomes a recipe for healing."
Rauf is viewed as a moderate Muslim and has spent much of his life preaching religious tolerance and the need for people of different faiths to work together. Until this week, he had been helping lead the effort to build an Islamic center about two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.
The nonprofit group behind the mosque plan announced Friday that his role in the project was being reduced, saying it supported Rauf's work but needed someone to be available locally to build a congregation. Rauf will remain on the Islamic center's board and continue to be involved in the project.
Rauf became the target of criticism last summer when details of a plan to replace a closed discount clothing shop with a 13- to 16-story Islamic center were made public. Plans called for the building to house athletic facilities, a day care center, art galleries, an auditorium, a Sept. 11 memorial and a prayer space to fit a congregation of about 1,000.
Opponents have called its location insensitive and offensive to families of victims of the terrorist attacks and demanded the project be moved to another location, but supporters said religious freedom should be protected.
Park51, the nonprofit group controlled by the developer of the Islamic center, announced Friday that Shaykh Abdallah Adhami would serve as a new senior adviser to lead religious programming in Rauf's absence.
"The Muslim community felt that Feisal was the perfect representative for it," said Shahla Khan, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan. Replacing him "is not going to stop the project," she added. "There is so much passion behind it."
Naajiah Muhammad, a Sunni from Detroit, said Rauf's message was needed and anyone opposing the proposed center in New York City will come to understand its true intent.
"I'm sure the overall message in the end will be for the good," said Muhammad, 52. "Hopefully, we can work together and do interfaith healing."
Saturday's forum was part of a celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The event, titled "Realizing the Dream: Finding Strength Through Diversity," focused on the importance of respect within the Muslim community.
Rauf's tour itinerary also includes stops in Chicago, Washington and San Antonio, and Rauf plans to speak at Harvard, Georgetown, Yale and the University of North Carolina. He said the tour will likely end in April.