WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully endorsed allowing a mosque near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, saying the country’s founding principles demanded no less.
Obama made the comments at an annual dinner in the White House State Dining Room celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said, weighing in for the first time on a controversy that has riven New York City and the nation.
“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” he said. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”
The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque, which would be part of a US$100 million Islamic centre two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted it was a local matter.
It was already much more than that, sparking debate around the country as top Republicans including former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich announced their opposition.
So did the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group.
Obama elevated it to a presidential issue Friday without equivocation.
While insisting that the place where the twin towers once stood was indeed “hallowed ground,” Obama said that the proper way to honour it was to apply American values.