WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday backed construction of a proposed mosque and Muslim cultural center near the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York -- a project opposed by conservatives and many New Yorkers.
"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 to applause at an event attended by diplomats from Islamic countries and members of the U.S. Muslim community.
"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, weighing in for the first time in a national debate that has grown increasingly heated in recent weeks.
Earlier this month a New York city agency cleared the way for construction of the community center, which will include a prayer room, two blocks from the site of the September 11 attacks, popularly known as "Ground Zero."
"This is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable," said Obama, who has made improving ties between the United States and the Muslim world a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
Obama was speaking during an Iftar dinner he hosted at the White House. Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
About 2,750 people were killed in the September 11 attacks, when al Qaeda hijackers crashed two passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The attacks deeply traumatized Americans and sparked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Bush administration's "war on terror."
Many families of those killed in the attacks have mounted an emotional campaign to block the community center, calling it provocative and a betrayal of the memory of the victims.
Conservative politicians such as former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, a Republican former Speaker of the House of Representatives, also have called for the project to be scrapped.
Mark Williams, a spokesman for the conservative Tea Party political movement, said the center would be used for "terrorists to worship their monkey god."
In his remarks on Friday, Obama preached the need for religious tolerance and noted that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had established the freedom of religion, "and that right has been upheld ever since."
The president also stressed that al Qaeda was not synonymous with Islam.
"Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam -- it is a gross distortion of Islam," he said. "These are not religious leaders -- these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has firmly supported the community center project as have many religious organizations in the city. However, 53 percent of New Yorkers oppose it, according to a Marist Poll this week.
The Cordoba House community center is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who told Reuters in an interview last month that he had modeled it on the Young Men's Christian Association.
Now simply called the Y, YMCA facilities across the United States offer exercise classes, education and community activities.
The city agency's August 3 ruling is expected to clear the way for construction of Cordoba House, which will include a 500-seat auditorium, art exhibition spaces and a swimming pool as part of a 13-story complex.
Since coming into office, Obama, a Democrat, has worked to reach out to Muslims, many of whom felt targeted by the "war on terror" and by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In a speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama called for a "new beginning" in ties between the United States and Muslims, saying extremists had exploited tensions between Muslims and the West and that Islam was not part of the problem.
Writing by Jeff Mason and Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Emma Ashburn, editing by Bill Trott