U.S. President Barack Obama says he supports a plan to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center in New York, near the scene of the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks. It was the first time the president has expressed his opinion about the intense controversy.
President Obama spoke Friday night at a White House Iftar dinner celebrating the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Despite widespread opposition to the plan, he said allowing the Islamic center to be built would reaffirm America's religious freedom.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. 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," he said.
It was the president's first public comment on the matter. White House officials had previously said it was a local issue.
A recent CNN poll shows that almost 70 percent of Americans oppose the plan to build the mosque near the place where almost 3,000 people were killed when hijackers from the Muslim militant group al-Qaida crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center. Many Americans say putting a mosque so close to the area now called "Ground Zero" is disrespectful to the victims.
Republican Congressman Peter King, of New York, almost immediately criticized the president's remarks, calling the plan to build the mosque "insensitive and uncaring."
Those who support building the Islamic center say it will help narrow divisions between the West and the Muslim world.
Mr. Obama said he understands the intense emotions associated with the issue.
"The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," he said.
But the president said religious freedom must be defended.
"This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable," he said. "The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are."
Mr. Obama said America's enemies respect no religious freedom, and that al-Qaida's cause is not Islam, but a gross distortion of Islam.
He also paid tribute to the Muslim American clerics who have spoken out against terror and extremism, and to Muslims who serve with honor in the U.S. military.