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Aug 13, 2010 10:13 PM by Alison Haynes

Obama backs mosque near ground zero

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully
endorsed allowing a mosque near ground zero, saying the country's
founding principles demanded no less.
"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, 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 center 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."
Obama made the comments at an annual dinner in the White House
State Dining Room celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque,
which would be part of a $100 million Islamic center 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 Sarah Palin and 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
honor it was to apply American values.
"Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards
those who are different from us - and that way of life, that
quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the
nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and
who continue to plot against us today," he said.
Obama harkened back to earlier times when the building of
synagogues or Catholic churches also met with opposition. "But
time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can
work through these issues, and stay true to our core values and
emerge stronger for it," he said. "So it must be and will be
today."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who has
been a strong supporter of the mosque, welcomed Obama's words as a
"clarion defense of the freedom of religion."
But some Republicans were quick to pounce.
"President Obama is wrong," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "It
is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a
mosque in the shadow of ground zero. While the Muslim community has
the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by
needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much."
Entering the highly charged election-year debate, Obama surely
knew that his words would not only make headlines but be heard by
Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out
to the global Muslim community, and the over 100 guests at Friday's
dinner included ambassadors and officials from numerous Muslim
nations, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Seated around
candlelit tables, they listened closely as Obama spoke, then stood
and applauded when the president finished his remarks.
While his pronouncement concerning the mosque might find favor
in the Muslim world, Obama's stance runs counter to the opinions of
the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion
Research poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of
Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved. A
number of Democratic politicians have shied away from the
controversy.
The group behind the $100 million project, the Cordoba
Initiative, describes it as a Muslim-themed community center. Early
plans call not only for prayer space but for a swimming pool,
culinary school, art studios and other features. Developers
envision it as a hub for interfaith interaction, as well as a place
for Muslims to bridge some of their faith's own schisms.
Opponents, including some Sept. 11 victims' relatives, see the
prospect of a mosque so near the destroyed trade center as an
insult to the memory of those killed by Islamic terrorists in the
2001 attacks. Some of the Sept. 11 victims' relatives, however, are
in favor.
The mosque has won approval from local planning boards but faces
legal challenges, and New York's Conservative Party is planning a
television ad campaign to pressure a New York City utility to use
its power to block the project.

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