Washington (CNN) — President Obama threw his support behind a controversial proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque near New York’s ground zero, saying Friday 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 center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” Obama said at a White House Iftar dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The president’s remarks drew praise from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced his support for the Islamic center last week.
Bloomberg compared Obama’s speech to a letter President George Washington wrote in support of a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. “President Obama’s words tonight evoked President Washington’s own August reminder that ‘all possess alike liberty,’ ” Bloomberg said in a statement.
“I applaud President Obama’s clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight,” he said.
Obama, who said he was speaking both as a citizen and as president, invoked the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which critics of the Islamic center cite as the main reason for preventing its construction.
“We must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan,” Obama said, according to his prepared remarks. “The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country.”
“The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable,” he continued. “So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”
But Obama argued that American ideals and the Constitution demanded that the project proceed.
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” he said. “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 writ of our Founders must endure.”
The proposed Islamic center has provoked vocal opposition from some families of 9/11 victims and other groups. Nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose the plan, according to CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll released Wednesday.
The project’s leaders say they plan to build the $100 million, 13-story facility called Cordoba House three blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. The developer, Sharif El-Gamal, describes the project as an “Islamic community center” that will include a 500-seat performing arts center, a lecture hall, a swimming pool, a gym, a culinary school, a restaurant and a prayer space for Muslims.
On Wednesday, the project’s developers declined an offer by New York Gov. David Paterson to relocate the project to a state-owned site.
Earlier this month, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously denied landmark status for the building where the proposed Islamic center would stand, allowing the project to move forward.