14 Aug 2010

Obama defends mosque planned near Ground Zero

2:00 pm on 14 August 2010

US President Barack Obama has defended plans for a mosque to be built near Ground Zero in New York.

A 13-storey Islamic community centre and mosque is proposed about two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.

Prominent Republican politicians and a host of conservative pundits have attacked the project.

Some relatives of people killed in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 are also opposed to it.

At a White House dinner on Friday celebrating Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, Mr Obama acknowledged "sensitivities" surround the 9/11 site, but said Muslims have the same right to practice their religion "as anyone else".

"Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable," he said.

"We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

"But 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.

"That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.

"This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.

"The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."

The BBC reports the president told a group of Congressmen, government officials and foreign dignitaries that America's tradition of religious tolerance distinguishes it from "our enemies".

Until now Mr Obama had not commented on the issue, with the White House saying that the matter was a local issue.