Breaking months of silence, President Barack Obama waded into the controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque" this week, when he said at a White House Iftar dinner, "As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise 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."

The plans to build the mosque two blocks away from the site of the 9/11 attacks caused a furore when they gained the approval of a local community board in Manhattan a few months ago. When the board gave the final go-ahead for the mosque, to be called Cordoba House, earlier this month, there were anguished outpourings by those who opposed as well as support for the plan.

In particular, a right-wing group won approval to run an advertisement on NYC buses that showed a photograph of a hijacked airplane flying into one of the twin towers on 9/11 and, suggestively, a high-rise building with an Islamic crescent and the words “Why There?” Further, critics of the mosque plan also raised questions about the State Department sponsoring a faith dialogue trip to the Middle East by the man behind Cordoba House, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

However President Obama this week indicated his strong support for the mosque despite these protests when he said, "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."

Arguing that America was a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and non-believers, he however underscored that those who were tragically lost on 9/11, must never be forgotten. Mr. Obama said that the pain experienced by those who lost loved ones was unimaginable and he understood the emotions that the issue engendered. "Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," he said.

Yet he emphasised that al-Qaeda's cause was not Islam but rather a "gross distortion" of the religion, and in reality, the terrorist group had killed more Muslims than people of any other religion.

Touching upon the importance of the contributions of American Muslims, the President said they excelled in every walk of life, serving as police, fire-fighters and first responders. "Muslim-American clerics have spoken out against terror and extremism, reaffirming that Islam teaches that one must save human life, not take it," he said.

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