NEW YORK, Oct. 24 (AP) - Shortly after Sept. 11, the leader of New York City's largest mosque, long known for his moderate views, suddenly moved back to Cairo and was quoted on a Web site as blaming Jews for the terrorist attacks.
Many were taken aback by the reports about Imam Mohammad Gemeaha, who three days after airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, delivered a sermon calling for peace among people of all religions.
He was head of the prominent Islamic Cultural Center of New York City, which regularly draws at least 4,000 people for Friday prayers, and attended interfaith gatherings with rabbis and ministers.
"What he said was a surprise to everybody," said Imam Omar Abu Nemous, who was Gemeaha's top aide and was named as his replacement. "He used to be very moderate, a smiling man, in point of fact."
Gemeaha moved to Egypt with his family on Sept. 25, saying his family had been threatened at their home on Manhattan's upscale Riverside Drive.
In an Oct. 4 interview, he was quoted on www.lailatalqadr.com, a hard-line Islamic Web site, as saying, "Jews planned those terrorist attacks and all the signs and indications prove that."
"But nobody inside the government can talk about it because Jews dominate the political decision-making, and they own the economic and media institutions," Gemeaha reportedly said. ``It is clear that these operations cannot be carried out by bin Laden or any Islamic organization.
"Muslims and Arabs are now not safe, they cannot go out for their usual business, their children cannot go to schools and some Muslims even cannot go to hospitals after some Jewish doctors in a hospital poisoned Muslim patients who died because of that."
A woman who answered the phone at Gemeaha's Cairo home on Wednesday said Gemeaha did not want to speak to reporters because they have exaggerated his comments. She identified herself as his wife but refused to give her name or make any further comment.
Many of the Web site's articles are critical of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a prominent center of Islamic learning whose leadership is approved by the officially secular government of Egypt. Some of the articles, however, are written by the university's more radical clergy.
Gemeaha served as a translator in the office of the grand imam at the university and was sent by the school to serve at the New York mosque.
Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, considered by many as the Sunni Muslim world's highest religious authority, denounced Gemeaha's reported comments, according to the chairman of the board of the mosque.
"Five minutes ago I was talking with the grand imam of Al-Azhar to complain to him about this matter. He denounced such kinds of statements and said they were regrettable and do not reflect the position of Islam," said Mohammad Abdullah Abulhasan, who is also Kuwait's ambassador to the United Nations. Kuwait contributed two-thirds of the $17 million to build the Islamic Center, completed in 1991.
Tantawi's office on Wednesday declined comment.
Abdulhasan said that he had spoken to Gemeaha by telephone and that Gemeaha had told him "some spices had been put by the editor."
"These statements that were made do not represent at all the policy and the beliefs of the center, nor what Imam Gemeaha was teaching during his three and a half years here," Abdulhasan said.
Nemous agreed it was uncharacteristic.
"That article I think was the result of a lot of emotional pressure because of the threats that he received here," he said. "They threatened him that if he didn't leave voluntarily he would leave in a box."