President Obama delivered a strong defense on Friday night of a proposed Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in Manhattan, using a White House dinner celebrating Ramadanto proclaim that “as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.”
After weeks of avoiding the high-profile battle over the center — his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said last week that the president did not want to “get involved in local decision-making” — Mr. Obama stepped squarely into the thorny debate.
“I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground,” the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftar, the sunset meal breaking the day’s fast.
But, he continued: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
In hosting the iftar, Mr. Obama was following a White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson, who held a sunset dinner for the first Muslim ambassador to the United States. President George W. Bush hosted iftars annually.
Aides to Mr. Obama say privately that he has always felt strongly about the proposed community center and mosque, but the White House did not want to weigh in until local authorities made a decision on the proposal, planned for two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Last week, New York City removed the final construction hurdle for the project, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg spoke forcefully in favor of it.
The community center proposal has led to a national uproar over Islam, 9/11 and freedom of religion during a hotly contested midterm election season.
In New York, Rick A. Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor and a former member of the House of Representatives, issued a statement responding to Mr. Obama’s remarks, saying that the president was still “not listening to New Yorkers.”
“With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security,” he said.
Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, has called the project “an unnecessary provocation” and urged “peace-seeking Muslims” to reject it.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, has also opposed the center.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama distinguished between the terrorists who plotted the 9/11 attacks and Islam. “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam,” the president said, adding, “In fact, Al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.”
Noting that “Muslim Americans serve with honor in our military,” Mr. Obama said that at next week’s iftar at the Pentagon, “tribute will be paid to three soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and now rest among the heroes of Arlington National Cemetery.”
Mr. Obama ran for office promising to improve relations with the Muslim world, by taking steps like closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and more generally reaching out. In a speech in Cairo last year, he vowed “a new beginning.”
But Ali Abunimah, an Arab-American journalist and author, said the president has since left many Muslims disappointed.
“There has been no follow-through; Guantánamo is still open and so forth, so all you have left for him to show is in the symbolic field,” Mr. Abunimah said, adding that it was imperative for Mr. Obama to “stand up to Islamophobia.”
Once Mr. Bloomberg spoke out, the president’s course seemed clear, said Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, a public policy institution here.
“Bloomberg’s speech was, I think, the pivotal one, and set the standard for leadership on this issue,” Mr. Clemons said.
Mr. Bloomberg, in a statement, said: “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, and I applaud President Obama’s clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight.”
Sharif el-Gamal, the developer on the project, said, “We are deeply moved and tremendously grateful for our president’s words.”
A building on the site of the proposed center is already used for prayers, and some worshipers there on Friday night discussed the president’s remarks.
Mohamed Haroun, an intern at a mechanical engineering firm, said, “What he should have said was: ‘This is a community decision. Constitutionally, they have the right to do it, but it’s a community decision and we should see what the local community wants to do.’ ”
- Anne Barnard and M. Amedeo Tumolillo contributed reporting from New York.