President Obama gave the proposed mosque near Ground Zero a clear and powerful endorsement last night, saying the country’s “commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”“Let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country,” the President said to applause from the 90 guests at a White House dinner Room celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.
“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,” Obama said.
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
The dramatic show of support came after weeks of dodging from the Obama administration on Park51, a planned Muslim community center and prayer space two blocks north of Ground Zero.
Leaders behind the project were elated to hear the President’s endorsement last night. “We are so blessed to be Americans! This is the greatest country in the world,” Sharif El-Gamal, the project’s developer, said in an email to the Daily News. “We are deeply moved and tremendously grateful for our President’s words.”
Opponents were enraged.
“The President should be ashamed of himself for doing this. It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Tim Brown, a 9/11 first responder who sued the city this month to stop Park51.
“This confirms to me personally what I have thought of him all along,” Brown said. “He is anti-American. This is so upside down.”
Obama has not wanted to wade into the debate, believing it was an issue best handled locally, a knowledgeable White House source said.
But as last night’s dinner in the State Dining Room was organized, it was clear the biggest issue facing mainstream American Muslims is the fate of the project in lower Manhattan.
Obama felt he had to address the issue head on, siding with the Constitution while urging the Muslim community to remember that “Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”
The debate has raged nationally, with Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani and New York gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio lined up with mosque opponents, who see it as a slap in the face to families who lost loved ones on 9/11. Some suggest the center will be a breeding ground for terrorists.
“President Obama is wrong,” said Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.). “The right and moral thing for President Obama to have done was to urge Muslim leaders to respect the families of those who died and move their mosque away from Ground Zero. Unfortunately, the President caved in to political correctness.”
Local and national polls have shown a majority of Americans oppose building the community center so close to Ground Zero. But Park51 has received the green light from every local agency along the way, as well as strong support from Mayor Bloomberg and other powerful New Yorkers.
Bloomberg, who gave an impassioned speech in favor of the project from Governors Island earlier this month, commended the President for supporting Park51.
“As I said last week, 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,” Bloomberg said.