WASHINGTON — Weighing in for the first time on the emotionally charged issue, President Barack Obama gave his blessing Friday to a Muslim group's plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, saying, "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
In making his case for supporting the Cordoba House project, Obama, who once taught constitutional law, referred to the Constitution and the words of Thomas Jefferson.
However, the audience to whom he addressed his remarks looked strikingly different from the Founding Fathers: dozens of Muslim-American men and women in politics, government, business, academia, faith and activism, all his guests at a White House iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
"As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said. "That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
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He said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had been "a deeply traumatic event" for the nation, that emotions of opponents of the mosque project are understandable and that "we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground."
He also said that the United States has flourished because of religious freedom.
"The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."
Obama had kept his opinion to himself since an Aug. 3 vote by a New York City landmarks commission paved the way for the project, an Islamic cultural center and house of worship. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs originally said it was a matter for the local community to decide.
In the days since, however critics have ramped up their rhetoric, hoping to pressure backers of the Cordoba House project to find another site. They argue that building the mosque two blocks from where al Qaida terrorists took 2,800 lives is too insensitive and provocative.
A majority of the public agrees. A CNN poll this week found 68 percent of Americans oppose building a mosque near the World Trade Center site.
Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has issued tweets urging "peaceful Muslims" to oppose the project. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich has questioned the intentions of the project's leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his fundraising sources, and said the center would represent "a political statement of shocking arrogance and hypocrisy."
Obama disagrees. He's pledged to Muslims that he'll work to reduce prejudice against them in the U.S., and to distinguish between their religious beliefs and the actions of terrorist radicals.
In his speech, Obama said that al Qaida is a "gross distortion" of Islam and said the group has killed more Muslims than people of any religion, including the Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
He added that "past eras have seen controversies about the construction of synagogues or Catholic churches. But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be and will be today."
Obama isn't the first high-profile politician to support the mosque project. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been defending the rights of the Cordoba House project's backers since the Aug. 3 vote.
However, Bloomberg is Jewish, and presides over a city of 8 million with great religious and ethnic diversity.
Obama is a Christian, but a significant minority of Americans — roughly 1 in 10 according to Pew polling last year — continue to believe he's a Muslim. His late father's African lineage, his Muslim-sounding name and his years spent in Indonesia as a child may bolster the erroneous belief. In any event, this case is politically sensitive for him.
Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates and the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, said she appreciates Obama's rhetoric but that his administration needs to take more actions to follow through.
"What's happening in New York we see as part of an alarming trend of intolerance across the country with respect to mosques from Tennessee to California as well," she said. "We're concerned about the way in which government actions may have fed this level of intolerance."
She's asking Obama to rein in federal policies she says allow broad profiling of Muslim-Americans and monitoring of mosques and political activity. She also says there's still too much confusion and concern about which Muslim charities U.S. donors can give to without fearing government reprisal.
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