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'No regrets' on mosque issue, Obama says

With the controversy still swirling over plans for a mosque near the former World Trade Center, President Obama said he had "no regrets" about his involvement in the debate.
A woman walks past the lower Manhattan building that will possibly house the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center in New York
A vacant building stands in Manhattan where the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center has been proposed.Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News and news services

With the controversy still swirling over plans for a Muslim community center near the former World Trade Center, President Obama said Wednesday that he had "no regrets" about his involvement in the debate.

Answering a reporter's question at a political event in Columbus, Ohio, the president initially paused, then turned to a TV camera and said, "The answer is — no regrets."

Obama entered the fray Friday, saying he supported the right of Muslims to build there. Amid political backlash a day later, the president said he was commenting on religious freedom, not the exact location of the mosque.

With Republicans trying to wrest control of Congress from Obama's Democrats, and facing a tough re-election battle of his own,Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid broke with the president over the issue Monday, saying the mosque should be built elsewhere.

New York Gov. David Paterson noted Thursday that there were no federal, state or local laws that would prevent the mosque from being built near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. But he said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he was sensitive to the concerns of a community traumatized by the attacks and still struggling to rebuild.

Asked if he thought the site of the Muslim center should be moved, Paterson said, "I think that might be a way to suit the needs of the community" near the trade center site.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean also chimed in on the issue.

Pelosi called for "looking into how is this opposition to the mosque (is) being funded." On Wednesday, her office sent the Washington Post a statement adding that she also supports "transparency about who is funding the effort to build this Islamic center."

But Dean, a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, said in comments on New York City talk radio station WABC that

“another site would be a better idea.”

“There has to be a compromise here," he said "We have to understand that it is a real affront to people who lost their lives [on 9/11], including Muslims.”

Many Republicans have called the proposal an affront to the memory of those killed in the 2001 attacks, although a few have warned their colleagues not to turn the issue into a political football.

Ted Olson, a Republican who was solicitor general under the Bush administration, on Wednesday voiced support for Obama's position. Olson's wife, Barbara Olson, was a passenger aboard the plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon in the 9/11 attacks.

"Well it may not make me popular with some people, but I think probably the president was right about this," Olson said on "Andrea Mitchell Reports."

"I do believe that people of all religions have a right to build edifices, or structures, or places of religious worship or study, where the community allows them to do it under zoning laws and that sort of thing. And that we dont' want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don't think it should a political issue," he said.

The planned $100 million center would be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site, where nearly 2,800 people died when Islamic extremists flew jets into the twin towers. The project is headed by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, a Muslim cleric who has worked to improve relations between Islam and the West.

The State Department said Wednesday that American taxpayers will pay the imam $3,000 in fees for a three-nation outreach trip to the Middle East that will cost roughly $16,000.

The department said Rauf will get a daily $200 honorarium for the 15-day tour to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which is intended to promote religious tolerance.

Airfare is included, as well as the standard federal government per diem for expenses and lodging in each of the cities he will visit, spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Those per diem rates range from nearly $400 to nearly $500, according to official documents.

Rauf starts his tour Thursday in Bahrain and ends it in the United Arab Emirates Sept. 2. At each stop he is expected to discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance. He will not be allowed to raise funds for the mosque on the trip, Crowley said.

"We have had conversations with the imam to make sure he understands that during these kinds of trips, he's not to engage in any personal business," Crowley told reporters. "He understands that completely."

"We value his participation as a religious figure here in the United States who can help people overseas understand the role that religion plays in our society," he said.

Crowley said this will be Rauf's fourth U.S.-government sponsored trip under a program run by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.

Crowley said Rauf had traveled twice to the Middle East in 2007 during the Bush administration and once earlier this year. 

Opposition in New York
A poll released Wednesday showed that a majority of New York state voters remain opposed and indicated the issue will be a factor for many in November elections.

The Siena College poll showed 63 percent of the state's voters surveyed oppose the project, with 27 percent supporting it. That compares with 64 percent opposed and 28 percent in favor two weeks earlier, results that are within the polls' sampling margins.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll released last week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan, while 29 percent approved.

In a new question, the latest Siena poll found that many in the state believe the project is protected by the Constitution, even if they oppose the plan.

Nearly two-thirds of voters, 64 percent, say the developers have a constitutional right to build the mosque. Twenty-eight percent say they do not.

Among those who oppose building the mosque, about half agree that developers have the constitutional right to build it. Twenty-eight percent of mosque opponents say they do not have that right.

Nearly a quarter of voters questioned said the issue will have a major effect on which candidate for governor they support. Thirty-seven percent say it will have some effect, while about 40 percent of voters say it won't matter.

The state at large is more conservative than heavily Democratic New York City.

The poll showed Republican Carl Paladino, who has taken the hardest line against the project among the candidates, is continuing to gain on Rick Lazio heading into the Sept. 14 Republican primary and also gaining on Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Still, Cuomo continues to have twice the support of either Lazio or Paladino.

Of those who see the issue as a major factor in their vote, almost all — 92 percent — oppose building the mosque near the attack site referred to as "ground zero." Cuomo has only a narrow lead over Lazio among those voters.

Cuomo has defended the project, saying it is protected by the Constitution. Lazio wants an investigation into who will fund the $100 million project. Paladino said it is akin to a Japanese war memorial at Pearl Harbor, the site of the 1941 attack that brought the United States into World War II.

The telephone poll questioned 788 registered New York state voters Aug. 9 through Monday. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

New York Gov. David Paterson plans to meet soon with the project's developers about possibly moving the mosque and cultural center.

Paterson last week offered his help and the possibility that state land could be provided as an alternate site for the center.

Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said talks were under way between the governor's office and representatives of Park51 to set up a meeting between Paterson and the project's leaders.

"We are working with the developers on a staff level, but there have not been any formal discussions between the governor and imam or developer," Hook said Tuesday. "We expect to have a meeting scheduled in the near future."

Mosque spokesman Oz Sultan released a statement Tuesday saying he did not believe a meeting had been scheduled.

"We appreciate the governor's interest as we continue to have conversations with many officials," Sultan said.

When project developer Sharif El-Gamal was asked by a local news station if he planned to consider moving the project, he was adamant he would not: "Not at all," he told NY1 on Tuesday.

He added that the World Trade Center site is not even visible from the building where the center would be.

"In New York City, two blocks is a great distance," he said, adding that some buildings in the city have their own zip codes. "We are nowhere near the World Trade Center site."