President Obama Supports Building of Mosque Near Ground Zero

President speaks for first time about his feelings on ground zero mosque.

August 14, 2010, 1:05 PM

Aug. 14, 2010— -- President Obama seemed to dial back today on his statement of support for plans to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, the site of the terror attacks of 9/11.

During a visit to the Gulf Coast today, Obama said that while he believes Muslims have the right to build the mosque and community center so close to where two hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 3,000 people, he is not sure it's a good idea.

He said he was not commenting on the "wisdom" of the plan Friday night, when he spoke Friday night at a White House ceremony to mark the Islamic holy month of Ramadan

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," he said Friday evening.

"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."

Republicans were quick to criticize the president for his support of the mosque plan.

"President Obama is wrong," said Rep. Peter King, whose district is on Long Island, N.Y. "It's insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero."

The planned $100 million Islamic community center would be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site, and the controversy over the plan has been building for weeks.

Some family members of the victims of the attacks said they were stunned by the president's remarks.

"Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see," said Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, in a statement released Saturday.

"Building a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah," the statement said. 

"What just happened is like spraying swastikas all over a Jewish memorial," said Andy Sullivan, a construction worker at Ground Zero during 9/11.

But one father who lost his son in the tragedy said he supports the plans.

"I'm very much in favor of religious tolerance. I don't believe that the 19 people who flew those planes, and the people who supported them represent Islam," Herbert Ouida said on "Good Morning America."

Colleen Kelly of the Bronx, whose brother Bill Kelly Jr. was killed in the attacks told The Associated Press she believes the mosque is "in many ways ... a fitting tribute."

"This is the voice of Islam that I believe needs a wider audience," said Kelly, who is Catholic. "This is what moderate Islam is all about."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the president, calling the comments a "clarion defense of the freedom of religion."

"This proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime," he said in a statement.

The dinner Friday was the first time the president has spoken publicly on the controversy, refusing to comment on what the White House had previously called a "local" issue. 

During his speech, the president said that the nation must never forget those who lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks and to remember that al Qaeda, not Islam, is responsible.

"Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam -- it is a gross distortion of Islam," he said. "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."

While many welcome the president's support, his speech runs counter to the opinions held by a majority of Americans.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of American opposed the plan while just 29 percent approved.

The Islamic center has won approval from the local planning board, but still faces legal and political challenges that may prevent its completion.

ABC News' Sunlen Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.