From Sunlen Miller
Weighing into the debate for the first time over the proposed controversial Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, President Obama says that he believes Muslims are within their right – in accordance with local laws – to build their place 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 anyone else in this country," President Obama said in the State Dining Room. "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, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
In remarks before the White House's annual dinner, marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the President also noted that this issue is one of considerable sensitivity to Americans and especially to New Yorkers.
“We must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan," he said. "The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground."
The president said that the nation must never forget those who lost their lives, and those who responded to the 9/11 attacks – and that everyone should remember the enemy.
“Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, 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.”
Tonight’s dinner is the first time the President has spoken publicly on the controversy. The White House had previously not wanted to wade into what they have called a "local" issue.
The president tonight noted that the religion itself is uncontroversial, and that Americans have a right to worship as they choose.
“It is a testament to the wisdom of our founders that America remains deeply religious – a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe,” he said.