NEW YORK – It is “unethical, insensitive and inhumane” to oppose the planned mosque near ground zero, more than 50 leading Muslim organizations said Wednesday as they cast the intense debate as a symptom of religious intolerance in America.

The imam behind the project, meanwhile, was preparing to return to the U.S. after a taxpayer-funded good will tour to the Mideast, where he said the debate is about much more than “a piece of real estate.” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf sidestepped questions about whether he would consider moving the $100 million mosque and Islamic community center farther from where Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Instead, he stressed the need to embrace religious and political freedoms in the United States.

Leaders of the Majlis Ash-Shura of Metropolitan New York, an Islamic leadership council that represents a broad spectrum of Muslims in the city, gathered on the steps of City Hall to issue a statement calling for a stop to religious intolerance and affirming the right of the center’s developers to build two blocks north of the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“We support the right of our Muslim brothers who wish to build that center there,” said Imam Al Amin Abdul Latif, president of the Majlis Ash-Shura. “However, the bigger issue and the broader issue is the issue of ethnic and religious hatred being spread by groups trying to stop the building of mosques and Islamic institutions across the country.”

This is the first time that the council as a body has spoken out on the weeks-old debate over the proposed center.

“When the issue became hotter and hotter, and people made more statements against the mosques, then we decided to get involved in it,” said Syed Sajid Husain, secretary general of the council.

Leaders of the council said they are calling attention to what they claim is an anti-Islamic climate, and that the development of a center near ground zero is simply one example.

They also cited a suspicious fire that damaged construction equipment at the site of a future mosque in Tennessee that is being investigated by the FBI, and the successful opposition to the proposed conversion of a property owned by a Catholic Church into a mosque and community center on Staten Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan.

Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor of New York who has opposed the mosque in lower Manhattan, has said criticism is “not an issue of religion.” Like many critics, he has said it is an issue of being sensitive to the families of 9/11 victims and transparency regarding the center’s funding.

A Quinnipiac poll Tuesday showed 71 percent of New Yorkers want the developers to voluntarily move the project.

Islamic leaders on Wednesday said they would support a move to another location, if that’s what the imam and his supporters choose to do.