Image: Barack Obama
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
President Barack Obama hosts an iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, Friday in the White House State Dining Room. Obama said the American tenet of religious freedom means the freedom of Muslims to build a mosque near ground zero in New York City.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 8/14/2010 4:42:09 AM ET 2010-08-14T08:42:09

President Barack Obama was compared favorably to America's first president and castigated as uncaring Friday after defending plans to create a mosque two blocks from New York's ground zero.

"Muslims have the right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama told a White House dinner crowd celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan Friday.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended the 13-story, $100 million Islamic center, said Obama's remarks reminded him of George Washington.

"Two hundred and twenty years ago this week, the Father of Our Country penned his famous letter to the Jewish Community of Newport Rhode Island or, as he called them, 'the Children of the Stock of Abraham.' President Obama's words tonight evoked President Washington's own August reminder that 'all possess alike liberty,'" Bloomberg said.

But Bloomberg wasn't speaking for all New Yorkers.

Rick A. Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor and a former member of the House of Representatives, issued a statement late Friday that the president was still “not listening to New Yorkers,” The New York Times reported.

“With over 100 mosques in New York City, this is not an issue of religion, but one of safety and security,” he said.

'Insensitive'
And Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., agreed. "President Obama is wrong," he said.

"It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero," he said. "While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much."

The mosque has drawn vocal opposition from some relatives of Sept. 11 victims and local and national Republican leaders. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, is also opposed.

Conservative politicians such as former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, a Republican former Speaker of the House of Representatives, also have called for the project to be scrapped.

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Ahead of the dinner talk, Palin asked on her Twitter account: "Will Obama express US lingering pain & ask Muslims for tolerance by discouraging 9/11 mosque while he celebrates Islamic holy month tonight?"

Later she re-Tweeted without comment a headline about Obama's mosque endorsement.

Mark Williams, a controversial tea party political movement supporter, said the center would be used for "terrorists to worship their monkey god."

Williams was publicly ousted by the National Tea Party Federation last month after posting a satirical letter supposedly from "the Colored People." He resigned as spokesman of the Tea Party Express in July and told reporters he would focus on fighting the mosque plan, the New York Daily News reported at the time.

Sharif el-Gamal, the developer on the project, told The New York Times, “We are deeply moved and tremendously grateful for our president’s words.”

A building on the site of the proposed center is already used for prayers, and some worshipers there on Friday night discussed the president’s remarks, the Post reported.

Mohamed Haroun, an intern at a mechanical engineering firm, told the Washington Post, “What he should have said was: ‘This is a community decision. Constitutionally, they have the right to do it, but it’s a community decision and we should see what the local community wants to do.’”

'Anti-Muslim hysteria'
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, expressed satisfaction to The Washington Post that Obama had finally decided to address the controversy.

"There was some disappointment when his press secretaries relegated it to being a local issue. But we're pleased," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. "It was something that needed to be done by the president. The level of anti-Muslim hysteria has gotten out of control over this manufactured controversy."

But Dan Senor, a prominent New York Republican who has been a vocal opponent of the project, told the Post that Obama's remarks represented a "missed opportunity."

"He sets up a straw man, as if the debate were solely about religious freedom," said Senor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"One can respect religious freedom and private property, both of which are protected by the Constitution, and still oppose the plans of the Cordoba Initiative on the grounds they will move New York backward, not forward," he added.

Senor, who worked for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, said Obama "could have embraced a defense of freedom of religion, and still called on the project's leaders to consider whether building it is the right thing to do."

The White House dinner was attended by over 100 guests, including two Muslim-American congressmen and ambassadors and officials from numerous Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

Obama told them all Americans have the right to worship as they choose.

"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."

Image: An anti-mosque ad depicts a plane about to crash into a flaming World Trade Center and a proposed mosque.
Ho  /  Reuters
An anti-mosque advertisement juxtaposes a plane about to crash into a flaming World Trade Center with a viwe of a proposed mosque near ground zero. The ads will begin appearing on New York City buses as soon as next week after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) relented and approved them on Monday.

Obama acknowledged the fiery emotions the planned mosque and cultural center have stoked.

"Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," the president said.

"But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as anyone 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."

Obama said Islam was not the enemy, al-Qaida was.

"We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led our response to that attack — from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today," he said.

"Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al-Qaida's cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders — they're terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al-Qaida has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion — and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."

Obama said that Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America.

"The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan — making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago."

The New York mosque is a project of the Cordoba Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes improved relations between Islam and the West.

Obama's stance runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

Video: Obama: Muslims have right to build in Manhattan

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama: Muslims have right to build in Manhattan

    >>> the planned mosque planned for ground zero in lower manhattan . jeff rossen is joining me leer in the studio with all of the details. let's get to what the president is saying.

    >> and the fact that he is talking at all is making news this morning, because the white house is making a point of saying that this is a local new york city issue all along, and clearly that has changed. the plan to build this mosque, as you know sparked passionate and angry debate a across the country, and president obama addressed it last night in the annual dinner at the white house celebrating the start of the islamic holy month of ramadan. and 100 guests here attended the dinner including ambassadors and officials from a number of muslim nations. the president said that muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else does and that includes a right to build a place of worship on private property located two blocks from ground zero .

    >> let me be clear. as a citizen, and as president, i believe that muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. [ applause ] that includes -- that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower manhattan in accordance with low al la al laws and or di nanlss.

    >>> prior to the comments last night, president obama had not talked about the con trtroversy publicly with the white house calling it a local issue. and michael bloomberg , the mayor of new york city , calls it a quote defense of free democrat of religion, but there are critics, alex. and those include the relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attacks and along with leading republicans like sarah palin and newt gingrich . and peter king says that building the mosque is insensitive and so where this goes from here and if it will be built remains to be seen.

    >> and the first step has been taken, because local planning boards have said, go ahead to build the mosque.

    >> and the president and the mayor as well.

    >> so what are the plans for it?

    >> well, the plans are that it is a $100 million facility and apparently more of a muslim-themed community center than a mosque. besides prayer space, they want to build a swimming pool, and culinary school and art studios and other features as well. the developers say they envision it as more of an interfaith interaction center as well as a place for muslims to try to bridge some of the differences with other religions. that is what they are planning

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