President Obama said at a dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month that he supports the controversial mosque project near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York.
"Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan," Obama said at Friday's iftar meal breaking the day's fast for Ramadan. "The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground."
"But let me be clear," Obama continued. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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. This is America."
It was the first time the White House had taken a stand on the Islamic center planned two blocks from Ground Zero. The proposal has raised outcry from some 9/11 family members, and a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll this week showed nearly 70 percent of respondents opposing the plan.
Obama said al Qaeda had killed more Muslims than those of other faiths, and said the United States was fighting against those who would restrict religious freedom and must remain "unshakeable" in the nation's commitment to such freedoms.
"Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America," the president said.
Next week, he said, an iftar will be held at the Pentagon and honor three Muslim-American soldiers who died in Iraq.
Among the attendees at Friday night's dinner were Democratic Reps. Rush Holt (N.J.), John Conyers (Mich.) and Andre Carson (Ind.), one of two Muslim members of Congress, as well as various administration officials and nearly three dozen representatives of the diplomatic corps.