The imam behind the controversial plans to build a mosque near the site of New York City's Ground Zero is headed to the Middle East for a religious outreach trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the department is sending imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, where he will discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance.
"We have a long-term relationship with him," Crowley told reporters. "His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States."
Click play for more reaction to Feisal Abdul Rauf's trip to the Middle East with CBN News Terrorism Analyst Erick Stakelbeck, following Wendy Griffith's report.
Rauf is leading the controversial Cordoba mosque project two blocks from Ground Zero.
"By being in this location we get the attention and are able to leverage the voice of the vast majority of Muslims who condemn terrorism," Rauf once told CBN News about the plan.
The imam has taken similar trips before. However, some Republicans in Congress feel the upcoming trip is "unacceptable."
"This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces or our country overseas." Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of New York said in a statement. "The United States should be using public diplomacy programs to combat extremism, not to endorse it."
The Obama administration said the trip was scheduled before the Ground Zero mosque controversy.
Funding for $150 million mosque project has been one of the biggest concerns for opponents.
"It's coming from all people who believe in peace and want to see a peaceful relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims," Rauf said about the funding.
"We are very careful about (not being linked to terrorist groups) and very concerned about that," he added.
Rauf's critics also point to comments he made shortly after 9/11 suggesting the U.S. was to blame for the terrorist attacks.
"The imam of this mosque, Faisal Abdul, is someone with a very dubious record. He's an Islamist. He's someone who has sympathy with our enemies more than with us," conservative commentator Daniel Pipes said.
"In other words, he wants to apply Islamic law." Pipes said. "Granted he's not doing it via terrorism, but he's using his own methods of education, propagation in order to achieve the same goals."
Rauf admitted mosques have often been used as places to preach jihad and hate against Americans, but said he's trying to change that.
"This is an attempt to be part of the solution. We recognize that we're over a billion people worldwide and there's a susceptibility for some of our young people to be drawn into these terrorist actions," Rauf explained. "We need to work together."