Obama backs NY mosque project

President Barack Obama backed construction of a proposed mosque and Muslim cultural centre near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York — a project opposed by U.S. conservatives and many New Yorkers.

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country,” Obama said at an event on Friday attended by diplomats from Islamic countries and members of the U.S. Muslim community.

“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,” he said.

Earlier this month a New York city agency cleared the way for construction of the center, which will include a prayer room, two blocks from the site of the Sept 11 attacks, popularly known as “Ground Zero.”

“This is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” said Obama, who has made improving ties between the United States and the Muslim world a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

Obama was speaking during an Iftar dinner he hosted at the White House. Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

He said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had established the freedom of religion “and that right has been upheld ever since.”

Al Qaeda also was not synonymous with Islam, Obama said.

“Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam,” he said. “These are not religious leaders — these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has firmly supported the community center project as have many religious organizations in the city. However, 53 percent of New Yorkers oppose it, according to a Marist Poll this week.

At least one additional legal challenge looms but the city agency’s Aug. 3 ruling will clear the way for construction of Cordoba House, which will include a 500-seat auditorium as part of a 13-storey Muslim cultural complex.

Since coming into office, Obama, a Democrat, has worked to reach out to Muslims, many of whom felt targeted by the “war on terror” and by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In a speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama called for a “new beginning” in ties between the United States and Muslims, saying that extremists had exploited tensions between Muslims and the West and that Islam was not part of the problem. (Source)

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