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Obama defends mosque near Ground Zero

In a passionate defense of religious freedom, President Barack Obama waded on Friday into a bitter controversy by defending the construction of a mosque near the New York site of the 9/11 attacks.

world Updated: Aug 14, 2010 11:31 IST

In a passionate defense of religious freedom, President Barack Obama waded on Friday into a bitter controversy by defending the construction of a mosque near the New York site of the 9/11 attacks.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said at the White House, where he was hosting a Ramadan meal for Muslims breaking the fast.

"That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in low Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

The remarks were Obama's first on the construction of a Muslim prayer center and interfaith venue inside a non-descript building just blocks from the New York site of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The project has attracted fierce criticism from those who say it insults the memory of the 3,000 victims of the attacks.

Obama acknowledged that the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood remains "hallowed ground," and that 2001 attacks "were a deeply traumatic event for our country."

But he said American values required that all religious groups be treated equally and fairly.

"This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. 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."

New York's municipal council has approved plans for the lower Manhattan building to be turned into a Muslim prayer center and venue for intercultural exchange called "Cordoba House."

Proponents of the project say it will work to build relations between Muslims and other religious groups, but critics, including Republican former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, have deemed the plans outrageous.

Obama acknowledged the "pain and suffering experience by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable," but he called on Americans to "always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for."

"Al-Qaeda's cause is not Islam -- it is a gross distortion of Islam," the president added.

"In fact, Al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion -- and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."