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Obama Speech Does Not End Controversy Over New York Mosque

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U.S. President Barack Obama's support for an Islamic center to be built near the scene of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has done little to mollify critics of the plan.  However, it has strengthened the argument that it should be allowed in because of America's tradition of religious freedom.

The proposed cultural center and mosque would be built a few blocks away from Ground Zero in New York city. That's the site of the former World Trade Center, which was destroyed when hijackers from the Muslim militant group al-Qaida crashed passenger planes into the Twin Towers, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Initially, President Obama stayed out of the controversy over the Islamic center. The White House had called it a matter to be decided locally in New York.

But on Friday night,the President finally spoke about it at the White House. And he did so while hosting an Iftar meal that Muslims eat to break the daily Ramadan fast.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said. "And 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."

The president said he understood the emotions triggered by the construction of a mosque near what he called "hallowed ground." But he said al-Qaida does not represent Islam, and America's commitment to religious freedom "must be unshakeable."

The President's comments, however did little to mollify the project's opponents.

Pamela Geller leads a group called "Stop Islamization of America." It has organized protests against the project in lower Manhattan. "He's just dismissing - so callously - the feelings of the 9/11 families and all of us," she said.

She and other opponents argue that planning a mosque near Ground Zero disrespects the memory of Sept. 11 attack victims.

Another prominent opponent of the project is Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. In a written statement, he said "the President caved into political correctness."

Some critics have supported the right to build the center, but worry that extremists will claim it as a victory for their radical brand of Islam.

Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told VOA the president's comments serve to counter that argument.

"In fact, if that center is not built, it's a victory for the terrorists and it's a victory for the extremists, who do not see that Muslim Americans enjoy the rights that every other American enjoys," said Awad.

The plan for the mosque caused little debate until it was criticized by prominent figures including former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. They voiced their opposition following the arrest of a Pakistani-born American who allegedly tried to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square.

According to a CNN opinion poll taken before the president's speech, 70 percent of Americans oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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