WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama has waded into a
bitter controversy over a plan by Muslims to build a mosque just blocks
from Ground Zero, endorsing the project on religious freedom grounds.
"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 late Friday.
"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."
Obama's remarks, delivered at a White House Iftar meal for Muslims
breaking their Ramadan fast, were the president's first on the
controversial project, which has become a test of tolerance for Islam in
post-9/11 America and sparked a national debate on freedom of religion.
Intended to include a mosque, sports facilities, theater, restaurant
and possibly a day care, the multi-story Islamic center would be open
to all visitors to demonstrate that Muslims are part of their community,
But the proposed location, two blocks from the gaping Ground Zero
hole, where the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11, has touched
Obama acknowledged that the site where the World Trade Center towers
once stood remains "hallowed ground," and that 9/11 attacks "were a
deeply traumatic event for our country."
But he said American values required that all religious groups be treated equally and fairly.
"This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be
unshakeable. 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."
New York City has approved plans for the lower Manhattan building to
be turned into a mosque and an interfaith venue called "Cordoba House."
But hearings on whether the construction should be allowed prompted
furious exchanges, with supporters accusing critics of racism and
Islamophobia, and opponents warning the plan insulted the memory of the
3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks.
Applause erupted when a New York city commission unanimously
approved the project August 3, but others shouted "shame," and waved
signs reading "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests."
Obama acknowledged the "pain and suffering experienced by those who
lost loved ones is unimaginable," but he called on Americans to "always
remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for."
"Al-Qaeda's cause is not Islam -- it is a gross distortion of
Islam," the president said. "In fact, Al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims
than people of any other religion -- and that list of victims includes
innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."
Before an audience of prominent Muslim Americans, including
administration officials, and Muslim members of Washington's diplomatic
corps, Obama paid tribute to US history of accepting and engaging
He cited the example of president Thomas Jefferson, who he said hosted the first White House Iftar, more than 200 years ago.
But the appeal to US history is unlikely to convince those most
opposed to the mosque, which has attracted increasingly strident
criticism, raising fears among US Muslims of an Islamophobic backlash.
A Florida church has already said it will hold a "Koran-burning" on
September 11 this year, and Muslim advocacy groups say they have reached
out to law enforcement officials seeking extra vigilance.
But Obama said while America's diversity contained the seeds of
conflict, US values were stronger and would always overcome difference.
"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," he said.