President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully endorsed building a mosque near ground zero, saying the country’s founding principles demanded no less.
“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, weighing in for the first time on a controversy that has riven New York City and the nation.
“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,” he said. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”
Obama made the comments at an annual dinner in the White House State Dining Room celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Republicans were quick to pounce on the president’s remarks.
“President Obama is wrong,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much.”
The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic center to be built two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted it was a local matter.
It was already much more than that, sparking debate around the country as top Republicans including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich announced their opposition. So did the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group.
Obama elevated it to a presidential issue Friday without equivocation.
While insisting that the place where the twin towers once stood was indeed “hallowed ground,” Obama said that the proper way to honor it was to apply American values
“Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us — a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today,” he said.
Entering the highly charged election-year debate, Obama surely knew that his words would not only make headlines but be heard by Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out to the global Muslim community, and guests at Friday’s dinner included ambassadors and officials from numerous Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
While his pronouncement concerning the mosque might find favor in the Muslim world, Obama’s stance runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved.
A number of Democratic politicians have shied away from the controversy. New York’s mayor, independent Michael Bloomberg, has been a strong supporter of the mosque, which has won approval from local planning boards.