President Barack Obama on Friday forcefully endorsed building a mosque near ground zero, saying the country's founding principles demanded no less.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said, weighing in for the first time on a controversy that has riven New York City and the nation.
"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," he said. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."
Obama made the comments at an annual dinner in the White House State Dining Room celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Opponents were quick to pounce.
"President Obama is wrong," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much."
The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic center to be built two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted it was a local matter.