WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully endorsed building 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 anyone else in this country," Obama said, weighing in for the first time on a controversy that has riven New York 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 to be built in lower Manhattan 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.
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 to those who are different from us - a way of life that 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.
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