WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, after skirting the controversy for weeks, is weighing in forcefully on the planned mosque near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, saying a nation built on religious freedom must allow it.
“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama told an intently listening crowd gathered at the White House Friday evening to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“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.”
The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center 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. So did the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group.