President Barack Obama has backed construction of a proposed mosque and Muslim cultural center near the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York -- a project opposed by U.S. conservatives and many New Yorkers.
Speaking on August 13 at a White House event attended by diplomats from Islamic countries and members of the U.S. Muslim community, Obama said Muslims had the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in the United States.
"Let me be clear: As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Obama said.
"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. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
Obama has made improving ties between the United States and the Muslim world a cornerstone of his foreign policy. He was weighing in for the first time in a national debate that has grown increasingly heated in recent weeks.
Many families of the 2,700 people killed in the September 11 attacks have mounted an emotional campaign to block the community center, calling it provocative and a betrayal of the memory of the victims.
Conservative politicians such as former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, a Republican former speaker of the House of Representatives, have also called for the project to be scrapped.
But earlier this month, a New York City agency cleared the way for construction of the community center, which will include a prayer room, two blocks from the site of the September 11 attacks, popularly known as "Ground Zero."Unpopular Decision
While acknowledging the sensitivities and emotions surrounding the development in Lower Manhattan, President Obama said that the commitment to religious freedom in the United States was unshakeable.
"Over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose, including the right to believe in no religion at all," Obama said.
"It is a testament to the wisdom of our founders that America remains deeply religious. A nation where the abilities of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in stark contrast to the religious conflict that persists elsewhere around the globe."
The president also stressed that Al-Qaeda was not synonymous with Islam and that it had killed more Muslims than followers of other religions.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has firmly supported the community center project as have many religious organizations in the city. However, 68 percent of Americans, though only 53 percent of New Yorkers, oppose it, according to a Marist Poll this week.
The Cordoba House community center is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who told Reuters last month that he had modeled it on the Young Men's Christian Association. Now simply called the YMCA, its facilities across the United States offer exercise classes, education, and community activities.
The city agency's August 3 ruling is expected to clear the way for construction of Cordoba House, which will include a 500-seat auditorium, art exhibition spaces, and a swimming pool as part of a 13-story complex.
compiled from agency reports