President Obama on Friday took a strong stand in favor of building a mosque near the site where Muslim terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, breaking his silence on a political tempest that has left the country divided.
Speaking at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan, Obama framed the issue as one of religious freedom.
Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Obama said, according to a White House transcript. "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."
The uproar over the proposed mosque has rekindled a debate over religious tolerance in a post-Sept. 11 society. Some relatives of Sept. 11 victims have come out against the mosque, as have prominent politicians.
Republican Rep. Peter T. King of New York said Friday that Obama was wrong.
"It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero," King said in a statement. "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.…Unfortunately the president caved into political correctness."
A majority doesn't want to see the mosque built, national surveys show. A CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this month showed 68% opposed plans to build the mosque, with 29% in favor. Count as part of the minority New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently gave a speech defending the planned Islamic center.
In a statement released Friday night, Bloomberg said: "As I said last week, 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, and I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight."
As the debate raged, Obama stayed out of it. As recently as last week, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, described the matter as one "for New York City and the local community to decide."
But the White House's Ramadan celebration, held in the State Dining Room with about 90 guests, presented a unique moment for Obama to make his position known.
"Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan," he said, according to the White House transcript. "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."
That said, he added: "This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
Supporting the mosque is a dicey proposition for Obama. Polls have shown a certain percentage of Americans mistakenly view him as a Muslim. He is Christian. Defending the mosque invites suspicion that he is overly sympathetic to the Muslim faith. At the same time, Obama has taken pains to reach out to the Muslim world. He gave a major speech in Cairo last year calling for "a new beginning" between the U.S. and Muslims.
Times staff writer Nicole Santa Cruz in New York contributed to this report.