WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans attacked President Barack Obama on Sunday for his comments on a controversial plan to build a Muslim cultural center in New York, saying he was “disconnected” from the nation in an election year.
Obama waded into the debate on Friday when he appeared to offer his backing for the center called Cordoba House to be built two blocks from the “Ground Zero” site of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City.
On Saturday, seeking to clarify his position, Obama said he supported the right of Muslims to build the center but would not comment on the “wisdom” of deciding its location in Lower Manhattan.
Prominent Republicans have opposed the proposed site of the center, saying it was insensitive and reopened the wounds of the attacks. On Sunday, several criticized Obama for what they said was his support of the center’s construction and subsequent waffling on the issue.
“This is not about freedom of religion because we all respect the right of anyone to worship according to the dictates of their conscience ... but I do think it’s unwise to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as the result of a terrorist attack,” Texas Republican John Cornyn said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.
“To me it demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the President himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America,” Cornyn said.
Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York who opposes the location of the center, told CNN’s “State of the Union” program that Obama clearly gave the impression he supported its construction but then backed off the next day.
“If the President was going to get into this, he should have been much more clear, much more precise and he can’t be changing his decision from day to day on an issue which does go to our Constitution ...”
Obama’s remarks put him in the middle of a heated political debate months before November elections, which are expected to result in big losses for Obama’s Democrats and a potential power shift in Congress in favor of Republicans.
Earlier this month a New York City agency cleared the way for the construction of Cordoba House, a 13-story building that would include meeting rooms, a prayer space, an auditorium and a pool.
Some of the families of those killed in the attacks have mounted an emotional campaign to block it, calling the center provocative and a betrayal of the memory of the victims.
“It does put salt on the wound,” King said. He urged Muslim leaders behind the project to reconsider the location.
Supporters of the right to build the center, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argue that religious tolerance is the best answer to religious extremism.
“The fallacy is that Al Qaeda attacked us. Islam did not attack us,” Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic congressman whose district includes the “Ground Zero” site, said on “State of the Union.”
“We were not attacked by all Muslims. And there were Muslims who were killed there.”
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll showed a majority of Americans across the political spectrum opposed the project being built near the site of the attacks.
The survey, released on Wednesday, showed nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed it, including 54 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents.
Republicans said the November elections will be about jobs, and that the president should be addressing high unemployment in the United States instead of speaking about religious freedom.
“Intellectually the President may be right. But this is an emotional issue and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, do not want that mosque in New York and it’s going to be a big, big issue for Democrats across this country,” Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist, told CBS’ “Face The Nation” program.
Additional reporting by Alan Elsner; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Paul Simao