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Obama forcefully defends plan to build mosque near Ground Zero

At a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan on Friday, President Obama defended a controversial plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Update | 4:38 p.m. Obama sought to clarify his remarks on Saturday, telling reporters in Panama City, Florida that, in defending the rights of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero, he “was not commenting” and “will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision.”

Obama added: “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important, as difficult as some of these issues are, that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”

The president’s comments were seen by many as an attempt to defuse the controversy stirred by his address at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan on Friday, in which he seemed to endorse the decision to build a mosque and Islamic community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks.

Original Post | President Obama stepped directly into one of the thorniest and perhaps most intractable political conflicts of the year on Friday, using a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan to issue a forceful defense of a proposal to build a mosque and Muslim community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

The White House had spent weeks avoiding the issue, telling reporters that the controversy over the mosque was a local matter. But after considerable speculation, Obama used his pulpit before an audience of prominent Muslim Americans and representatives of Arab nations to proclaim his support for the plan, known as the Cordoba House.

“Let me be clear: As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama 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.”

He added: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

Last week, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission removed the final barrier to the $100 million project, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an emotional address arguing in favor of it. After Obama’s speech on Friday evening, Bloomberg issued a statement reiterating his support for the plan. “This proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime,” Bloomberg said. “And I applaud President Obama’s clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight.”

American Muslim groups also cheered Obama’s remarks. Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that he hoped the president’s defense of the Cordoba House would prompt other political and religious leaders who had so far remained silent to come out in favor of the project as well. “We welcome President Obama’s strong statement of support for American Muslim religious rights and hope his remarks will serve as encouragement to those who are challenging the rising level of Islamophobia in our society,” Awad said.

The furor over the proposed mosque and community center has become something of a political football nationally, and especially in New York, where candidates for Congress and statewide office have traded barbs over the issue on a nearly daily basis. Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor and former member of the House of Representatives, issued a statement Friday evening accusing Obama of “not listening to New Yorkers.” Lazio has called on the Democratic designee for governor, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, to investigate the organization behind the mosque, the Cordoba Initiative.

“With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security through transparency,” Lazio said. “There has been a deliberate attempt to avoid transparency and a deliberate attempt to build the mosque at this location. Why?”

Lazio has been joined in his opposition to the proposal by national Republican leaders, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate, who called the project “a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks.” Republican challengers in hotly contested House races, including Randy Altschuler in New York’s first congressional district, have also called on their Democratic rivals to denounce the project. Many, including Altschuler’s opponent, Rep. Tim Bishop, and Rep. Mike McMahon of Staten Island, have remained silent.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, has also come out against the project, arguing in a statement last month that “building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right.”

Polls have shown that the project remains largely unpopular nationally as well as in New York. A CNN poll earlier this week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose the idea of building a mosque near Ground Zero. Nonetheless, in his remarks on Friday, Obama issued a passionate defense of the proposal, seeking to distinguish between the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks and the peaceful practitioners of Islam across the country.

“Al-Qaida’s cause is not Islam — it’s a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children,” Obama said. “So that’s who we’re fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms — it is the strength of our values.”

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