WHITE HOUSE —
President Barack Obama pressed for unity in America during his first visit to a U.S. mosque as the nation’s leader, telling Muslims “We are one American family.”
During remarks Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama thanked Muslim-Americans for helping to build the U.S. and make it strong.
He also acknowledged the “hugely distorted” negative view Muslim Americans have had to endure with the rise of terrorism-related violence by Islamist extremists.
Muslims Americans are worried not only about the threat of terrorism, but also about being “targeted or blamed for the violence of the very few,” the president told the group.
President Barack Obama meets with members of Muslim-American community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Feb. 3, 2016, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Particularly since the terror strikes in Paris in November, and in San Bernardino, California in December, Obama said too often people “conflate terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith.”
He also lashed back against anti-Muslim discourse by some political figures.
“Of course recently, we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans. It has no place in our country,” Obama said.
The president has criticized remarks by Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others in recent months.
Countering anti-Muslim rhetoric
Trump called for all Muslims to be barred from entering the country for a period of time, and Cruz suggested that the United States resettle only Christian Syrian refugees.
President Barack Obama greets students after his remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland, Feb. 3, 2016.
More than two dozen U.S. governors also have signaled they will try to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states. Critics of the Obama administration’s plan to resettle immigrants from Syria and Iraq argue they pose a greater security threat.
The president has accused prominent political figures of using fear to win support, and said those tactics are dividing the country and fueling propaganda by terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida.
During his remarks, Obama reaffirmed Americans’ constitutional right to freedom of religion. “Our founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions,” he said.
While the “overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted version of Islam,” he added.
“Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities,” Obama said, noting that some who have dared to speak out have been targeted and sometimes killed.
“Those voices are there,” he added. “We just have to amplify them more.”
WATCH: Obama meets with Muslim-Americans in Baltimore
In a direct message to young Muslims, Obama urged them to reject “voices on the Internet” constantly claiming that Muslim Americans must choose between faith and patriotism.
“Do not believe it,” he urged. “You’re part of America too. You’re Muslim and American.”
Ultimately, however, Obama said combating terrorism will require Americans of all faiths to work together. “We will rise and fall together. It won’t always be easy."
Before his remarks, Obama held a closed door round-table discussion with Muslim leaders “from all walks of life, with a variety of experiences,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Outside under cloudy, drizzly skies, a small group of both protesters and supporters gathered.
Responding to some claims that a former imam at the mosque had ties to extremist groups, Earnest said he is not surprised that political opponents stepped forward to protest the visit.
Protester stands near mosque in Baltimore, Maryland where President Obama is meeting with Muslim-American leaders, Feb. 3, 2016. (E. Cherneff / VOA)
WATCH: White House video of President Obama's speech