The imam behind a plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero is set to depart on a multi-country jaunt to the Middle East funded by the State Department -- raising concerns that taxpayers may be helping him with the controversial project's $100 million fund-raising goal.
Feisal Abdul Rauf is taking the publicly funded trip to foster "greater understanding" about Islam and Muslim communities in the United States, the State Department confirmed yesterday.
"He is a distinguished Muslim cleric," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, when asked about the journey, reportedly to include stops in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar.
"I think we are in the process of arranging for him to travel as part of this program, and it is to foster a greater understanding about the region around the world among Muslim-majority communities," he added.
Crowley said no fund-raising for the mosque and cultural center during the trip would be permitted. "That would not be something he could do as part of our program," he said.
Abdul Rauf said funds for the center will come from Muslims and members of his congregation.
But a London-based Arabic-language newspaper that interviewed Abdul Rauf reported that he says he also will collect money from Muslim and Arab nations around the world -- raising the possibility his goodwill mission could help him build contacts in oil-rich states.
"Does the State Department have any idea they are sending a guy to the Middle East who is going to be fund-raising perhaps among the very same people he will be meeting with?" asked Debra Burlingame, a 9/11 family member.
"We know he has a fund-raising association with Saudi Arabia," Burlingame said, noting that the Saudis have contributed money to underwrite programs by the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a not-for-profit that Abdul Rauf runs with his wife and that is one of the sponsors of the Ground Zero mosque. "He's going to the well, and how can they say they do or don't know what he's doing?"
Meanwhile, state regulators said the sale of an adjacent Con Ed building needed to complete the Ground Zero mosque -- as disclosed by The Post on Sunday -- might be subject to review after all, even as Mayor Bloomberg insisted the project has "nothing to do with Con Ed."
Public Service Commission spokeswoman Anne Dalton said state law requires the agency to sign off on the "transfer or lease" of any property a utility owns within its franchise area.
The question is whether Con Ed satisfied that requirement nearly four decades ago, when it granted a 99-year lease on the former substation site at 49-51 Park Place.