Negative reactions to President Obama’s remarks about the proposed mosque near Ground Zero are coming from all sides, including members of his own political party.
Opponents of the proposed $100 million Muslim cultural center are upset that the president voiced support for the plan at a White House iftar (evening meal to break fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan) Friday without seriously addressing the concern of those against the project, mainly sensitivity to the families of the 9/11 attacks.
Some critics contrasted the president’s backing of the Islamic center with his lack of support for Christians.
Religious Freedom Coalition Chairman William Murray criticized the president for “ignoring” the need of St. Nicholas, the only church destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which has yet to be rebuilt.
Meanwhile, provocative commentator Bill Keller of LivePrayer.com chastised the president for not holding a White House event for the National Day of Prayer but holding an iftar. He also held President Obama responsible for the U.S. government-funded Middle East trip of Imam Feisal Rauf, the man behind the proposed Muslim cultural center. Ralf will be going to the Mideast to build bridges between the United States and Arab countries.
Likewise, supporters of the Islamic center were unhappy that Obama seemed to tone down his support on Saturday when he told a CNN reporter that he was “not commenting on the wisdom” of the plan, but was rather addressing in his statement the overarching value that the government should treat “everyone equal, regardless” of religion.
Michael Gerson, who served as chief speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, commented that Obama “managed to collect all the political damage for taking an unpopular stand without gaining credit for political courage,” in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Monday.
Muslim Americans are building a community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, where nearly 3,000 people died in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Organizers insist that the project, called Park51, is part of an effort to promote tolerance and improve Muslim-West relations.
Obama on Friday stated in front of members of Congress, religious leaders, activists, and government officials at a White House dinner that he supported the Muslim house of worship. It was the first time that the president made a comment on the emotionally-charged debate.
"Let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said. "And 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."
"This is America," Obama proclaimed. "And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
Obama’s support for the mosque was met on Monday with an opposing statement by the No. 1 Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid.
Reid released a statement saying that the mosque should be built elsewhere.
“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” reads the statement released by Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley. “Sen. Reid respects that but thinks the mosque should be built some place else.”
Democrats are worried about losing power in the midterm elections and fear that Obama’s unpopular stance will have a negative effect on party candidates.
According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Wednesday, nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose the plan to build a mosque near the 9/11 site.
Despite the strong negative response to the president’s stance, Republican Michael Gerson maintained that Obama had to take the position he did.
“A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves – including millions of Muslim citizens,” Gerson wrote. “His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.”
“By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground.”
Amid the fierce debate, SoHo Properties, the developer of Park51, tweeted last week that it is open to the suggestion made by New York Gov. David Paterson to build the cultural center elsewhere. Paterson raised the possibility of providing SoHo Properties state-owned land to build the center farther away from Ground Zero and quell the raucous debate.
Last year, SoHo Properties sold 45-47 Park Place to the Cordoba Initiative, the group behind the proposed Muslim cultural center, and the American Society for Muslim Advancement for $4.85 million. SoHo also signed a long-term lease on 49-51 Park Place.
The Muslim community center is being designed to include a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, space for multifaith dialogue, education programs and a mosque.