WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully joined the national debate over construction of an Islamic complex near New York's ground zero, telling guests at a White House dinner marking the holy month of Ramadan that opposing the project is at odds with American values.
"Let me be clear: 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, according to prepared remarks, at a White House iftar, the traditional breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.
"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 continued. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
Obama expressed sympathy for the families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida terrorists purporting to act in the name of Islam. But he told the gathering that included Muslim and other religious leaders that blocking the mosque, as some leading Republicans have angrily demanded, would undermine the country's claim to respect the free practice of religious expression.
Polls suggest that most Americans disagree with his position; a recent CNN poll found 68 percent opposed to building a mosque near the Sept. 11 site.
Obama, who has made repairing strained U.S. relations with the Islamic world a centerpiece of his presidency, had remained silent for months about the proposal to build the Muslim cultural complex in Lower Manhattan.
As proposed, the $100 million Islamic center, formally known as the Cordoba House, would rise 13 stories on land two blocks from the World Trade Center site. It would include a prayer room — the mosque component of the project — and "a Sept. 11 memorial and contemplation space."
A New York City planning commission unanimously struck down the final barrier to the project on Aug. 3 by refusing to grant landmark status to the building now on the site. The existing structure was damaged by debris in the Sept. 11 attacks.
But what began as a local zoning dispute evolved into a raucous national discussion.
A number of prominent Republicans joined some of the families of those killed on Sept. 11 in opposing the mosque, saying it would inappropriately celebrate the religion that al-Qaida leaders say inspired the terrorist attacks.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin asked the mosque's supporters in her Twitter feed last month: "Doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland?" Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in July called the mosque proposal a "test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites."
But Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who is the project's sponsor, has promoted it as a place to foster religious tolerance, Islamic heritage and healing.
Obama made his remarks at a dinner with close to 100 guests of Congress, diplomats, religious leaders, community activists and administration officials. The annual White House celebration, which dates back to a similar one 200 years ago hosted by Thomas Jefferson, took place in the State Dining Room.