WASHINGTON // The US president Barack Obama said a Muslim group has the right to build an Islamic centre, including a mosque, near the World Trade Center, site of the September 11 attacks. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country," Mr Obama said. "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."
Mr Obama spoke for the first time about the debate over the planned Islamic centre during an annual White House iftar dinner on Friday. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable," Mr Obama said. "The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and that they will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are." The proposal to put the centre on Park Place, two blocks from the target of the 2001 attacks, has drawn opposition from politicians such as the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, both Republicans, as well as the Anti-Defamation League.
The New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city council speaker Christine Quinn have supported the project. Mr Bloomberg praised the president's comments. "I applaud President Obama's clarion defence of the freedom of religion," he said in a statement. The Cordoba Initiative, the project's sponsor, describes itself as devoted to ecumenical relationships with other faiths. New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously early this month to allow the demolition of a building on Park Place that would be replaced by a mosque.
"We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan," Mr Obama said. "I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground." Mr Obama said religious freedom is among the things "we are fighting for" against terrorists such as al Qa'eda. "Our enemies respect no freedom of religion," he said. "These are not religious leaders - they're terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children."
The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish organisation with a mission to fight anti-Semitism, said in its July 28 statement that an alternate location for the proposed centre should be found. "Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right," the statement, posted on the group's website, said. "In our judgment, building an Islamic Centre in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain - unnecessarily - and that is not right."
Mr Obama's decision to address the building of the Islamic centre marks a turnaround for the administration. After the city commission's vote, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the issue was "a matter for New York City and the local community to decide". Fifty-three per cent of registered New York City voters opposed the building of the Islamic centre and mosque at the site and 34 per cent supported its development, according to a Marist College poll conducted from July 28 to August 5. Since giving a speech supporting the right of Muslims to build the centre early this month, Mr Bloomberg said he has received support from many New Yorkers and public officials, along with criticism from other people.
While Mr Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, held iftar dinners annually, Mr Obama has made a conspicuous effort to reach out to Muslims to repair relations frayed over the US-led invasion of Iraq and the war on terrorism focused on Islamist extremists. In April, the president invited about 250 business and social entrepreneurs from more than 50 largely Muslim countries to Washington to take part in a two-day summit on entrepreneurship.
In a June 2009 speech at Cairo University in Egypt, Mr Obama said the West and the Muslim world must end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" that has defined the relationship. * Bloomberg