Barack Obama defends plans for Ground Zero mosque
Relatives of 9/11 victims accuse president of ‘abandoning America’ over support for Islamic cultural centre
Prominent Republicans have led protests against the construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Centre. The proposed building would not be visible from Ground Zero.
Obama acknowledged that “sensitivities” surrounded the 9/11 site, which he described as “hallowed ground”, but he said Muslims had the same right to practise their religion “as anyone else”.
In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan, he said: “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country.
“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
The White House has not previously taken a stand on the mosque. Its press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has described the issue as a local matter.
Republicans including Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, and Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House of Representatives, have been vocal opponents of the scheme, describing it as an insult to the memory of those killed by Islamist terrorists in the 2001 attacks.
The president’s support for the mosque was welcomed by New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg,, who described Obama’s speech as a “clarion defence of the freedom of religion”.
But some relatives of the victims of the 9/11 attacks were quick to condemn the president.
“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, a spokeswoman for some victims’ families and the sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks.
Building the mosque was “a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah,” she said.
Republican representative Peter King of New York added: “President Obama is wrong. It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero.”
While Obama’s defence of the mosque might help him reach out to the Muslim world, it is unlikely to play well at home. A CNN poll this week found that nearly 70% of Americans opposed the mosque plan, while just 29% approved.