Obama backs NY mosque and Muslim cultural centre project,
"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 an event on Friday 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.
Earlier this month a New York city agency cleared the way for construction of the center, which will include a prayer room, two blocks from the site of the Sept 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.
About 2,750 people were killed on Sept. 11 when hijackers from the Muslim militant group al Qaeda crashed two passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, an event that traumatised Americans and sparked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Bush Administration's "war on terror."
Families of those killed in the attacks have mounted an emotional campaign to block the mosque, saying it would be 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, have also 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."
With the rhetoric growing more heated, Obama decided on Friday to make his voice heard.
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.
He said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had established the freedom of religion "and that right has been upheld ever since."
Al Qaeda also was not synonymous with Islam, Obama said.
"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.
At least one additional legal challenge looms but the city agency's Aug. 3 ruling will clear the way for construction of Cordoba House, which will include a 500-seat auditorium as part of a 13-storey Muslim cultural 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 that extremists had exploited tensions between Muslims and the West and that Islam was not part of the problem.