Obama defends plans for Ground Zero mosque

The US president, Barack
Obama, has defended controversial plans to build a mosque near the site of the
9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, saying to oppose them would be un-American.

Prominent Republicans have
led protests against the construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque
two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Centre. The proposed
building would not be visible from Ground Zero.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that
“sensitivities” surrounded the 9/11 site, which he described as “hallowed
ground”, but he said Muslims had the same right to practise their religion “as
anyone else”.

In a speech at a White House
dinner celebrating Ramadan, he said: “As a citizen, and as president, I believe
that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone 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 White House has not
previously taken a stand on the mosque. Its press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has
described the issue as a local matter.

Republicans including Sarah
Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, and Newt Gingrich, the
Republican former speaker of the House of Representatives, have been vocal
opponents of the scheme, describing it as an insult to the memory of those
killed by Islamist terrorists in the 2001 attacks.

The president’s support for
the mosque was welcomed by New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg,who
described Mr. Obama’s speech as a “clarion defence of the freedom of religion”.

But some relatives of the
victims of the 9/11 attacks were quick to condemn the president.

“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 victims’ families and the sister of one of the pilots
killed in the attacks.

Building the mosque was “a
deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name
of Allah,” she said.

Republican representative
Peter King of New York added: “President Obama is wrong. It is insensitive and
uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground
Zero.”

While Mr. Obama’s defence of the mosque
might help him reach out to the Muslim world, it is unlikely to play well at
home. A CNN poll this week found that nearly 70 per cent of Americans opposed
the mosque plan, while just 29 per cent approved.

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