President Obama delivered a strong defence on Friday night of a proposed Muslim community centre and mosque near ground zero in Manhattan. He used a White House dinner celebrating Ramzan to proclaim "as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country".
After weeks of avoiding the high-profile battle over the centre — his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said last week that the president did not want to ‘get involved in local decision-making’ – Obama stepped squarely into the thorny debate.
"I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftaar, the sunset meal breaking the day's fast.
But, he continued: "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their
government, is essential to who we are." In hosting the iftaar, Obama was following a White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson, who held a sunset dinner for the first Muslim ambassador to the United States. President George W Bush hosted iftaars annually. Obama's aides say privately that he has always felt strongly about the proposed community centre and mosque, but the White House did not want to weigh in until local authorities made a decision on the proposal, planned for two blocks from the site of the September 11 attack.
Last week, New York City removed the final construction hurdle for the project, and Mayor Michael R Bloomberg spoke forcefully in favor of it.
The community centre proposal has led to a national uproar over Islam, 9/11 and freedom of religion during a hotly contested midterm election season. In New York, Rick A Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor and a former member of the House of Representatives, issued a statement responding to Obama's remarks, saying that the president was still "not listening to New Yorkers".
"With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security," he said.