The proposed construction has sparked debate around the country that has included opposition from top Republicans including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich as well as the Jewish civil rights group the Anti-Defamation League.
Obama’s Friday comment was taken by some to mean that he strongly supports the building of an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, something he never said.
Speaking to a gathering at the White House Friday evening to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Obama said that he believes “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.”
“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. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”
Asked Saturday about the issue during his trip to Florida, Obama said: “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding.”
Obama said that “my intention was simply to let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion.”
Some relatives of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks supported Obama’s comments.
The mosque is “in many ways … a fitting tribute,” said Colleen Kelly of the Bronx, who lost her brother Bill Kelly Jr. in the attacks.
“This is the voice of Islam that I believe needs a wider audience,” said Kelly, who is Catholic. “This is what moderate Islam is all about.”
Opinions are mixed among family members.
Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son was killed at the World Trade Center, has said the president’s comments show “a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were lost.”
“Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America’s heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see,” said Debra Burlingame, a spokeswoman for some Sept. 11 victims’ families and the sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks.
Building the mosque at ground zero, she said, “is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah.”
Obama surely knew that his words Friday night at a White House dinner marking the holy month of Ramadan not only would make headlines, but be heard by Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out to the global Muslim community, and the more than 100 guests at Friday’s dinner included ambassadors and officials from numerous nations where Islam is observed, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
When Obama first took office, Muslim leaders had high hopes from his presidency, even as he kept his distance from them during the campaign and rebutted false rumors that he was Muslim.