The US president Barack Obama has waded into a bitter controversy over a plan by Muslims to build a mosque just blocks from Ground Zero, endorsing the project on religious freedom grounds. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Mr Obama said late last night. "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's remarks, delivered at a White House Iftar meal for Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast, were the president's first on the controversial project, which has become a test of tolerance for Islam in post-9/11 America and sparked a national debate on freedom of religion. Intended to include a mosque, sports facilities, theatre, restaurant and possibly a day care, the multi-story Islamic centre would be open to all visitors to demonstrate that Muslims are part of their community, planners say.
But the proposed location, two blocks from the gaping Ground Zero hole, where the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001, has touched raw nerves. Mr Obama acknowledged that the site where the World Trade Centre towers once stood remains "hallowed ground," and that 9/11 attacks "were a deeply traumatic event for our country." But he said American values required that all religious groups be treated equally and fairly.
"This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. 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." New York City has approved plans for the lower Manhattan building to be turned into a mosque and an interfaith venue called "Cordoba House." But hearings on whether the construction should be allowed prompted furious exchanges, with supporters accusing critics of racism and Islamophobia, and opponents warning the plan insulted the memory of the 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks.
Applause erupted when a New York city commission unanimously approved the project August 3, but others shouted "shame," and waved signs reading "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests." Mr Obama acknowledged the "pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable," but he called on Americans to "always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for."
"Al Qa'eda's cause is not Islam - it is a gross distortion of Islam," the president said. "In fact, al Qa'eda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion - and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11." Before an audience of prominent Muslim Americans, including administration officials, and Muslim members of Washington's diplomatic corps, Mr Obama paid tribute to US history of accepting and engaging Muslims.
He cited the example of president Thomas Jefferson, who he said hosted the first White House Iftar, more than 200 years ago. But the appeal to US history is unlikely to convince those most opposed to the mosque, which has attracted increasingly strident criticism, raising fears among US Muslims of an Islamophobic backlash. A Florida church has already said it will hold a "Quran-burning" on September 11 this year, and Muslim advocacy groups say they have reached out to law enforcement officials seeking extra vigilance.
But Mr Obama said while America's diversity contained the seeds of conflict, US values were stronger and would always overcome difference. "Time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be - and will be - today," he said. * AFP