Months into an emotionally-charged debate surrounding the planned mosque and community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama declared his support Friday night for the Muslim house of worship.
"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 to applause at the White House. "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."
His remarks were made at an Iftar dinner to observe the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"This is America," Obama proclaimed. "And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
This is the first time the U.S. president weighed in on the controversy over a project called Park51 in lower Manhattan. 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. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who founded Muslim outreach group the Cordoba Initiative, is spearheading the project. Organizers insist that it is part of an effort to promote tolerance and improve Muslim-West relations.
Some religious leaders, including the National Council of Churches, have thrown their support behind the $100 million project, urging respect for Muslim neighbors and for religious freedom.
Rick A. Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York governor, has argued, however, that this is not a matter of religion.
"With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security," he said in a statement Friday.
Opponents have strongly protested the project, calling it insensitive and offensive to the victims of the attacks.
Some conservative Christian leaders, including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, have argued that the mosque and community center should not be built so close to Ground Zero.
Others are convinced the project is a political statement or a "victory monument," marking Muslim dominance over America.
While recognizing the trauma and the sensitivities surrounding 9/11, Obama urged Americans to remember who they're fighting against and what they're fighting for.
"Our enemies respect no religious freedom," he said. "Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam – it's a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – they're terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."
Oz Sultan, spokesperson for Park51, tried to clear up what he says are misconceptions surrounding the project.
"We're going to take the due steps to make sure that we can expose as much of this project to everyone ... and to kind of show that 'you know what give us a chance, give us a fair shake – we're not the terrorists,'" he told CNN recently.
While many have questioned Imam Rauf's motives and his refusal to denounce Hamas, Sultan contended, "Imam Feisal is more of a statesman ... and I think it is a little bit short-sighted to kind of take someone who has that sort of a role and put them in the precarious slippery slope position of saying 'do you condemn this and that on a global stage' when really his focus is to build bridges."
Rauf is being sent by the U.S. State Department to foster "greater understanding and outreach" among Muslim communities in the Middle East.
Also addressing concerns over the source of funding and lack of transparency, Sultan stressed that their focus is to get the center and mosque funded domestically with state, local and federal dollars. They have yet to launch their fundraising campaign.
"We plan on complying with the Treasury Department and if they say that someone is on a list, their money's not taken. We're not going to take money from anyone who's on a Treasury watch list or any of the Treasury lists," he insisted.
Last year, the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement paid $4.85 million cash to Soho Properties, a Muslim-run real estate company and the developers behind the mosque and center, for 45-47 Park Place. Soho also signed a long-term lease on 49-51 Park Place.