President Barack Obama gave strong support on Friday for a proposed Islamic center near the former World Trade Center, saying that the project must be supported on the grounds of religious freedom.
Speaking at the White House during an iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the fast for Muslims during Ramadan, Obama said that the country's commitment to religious freedom must be "unshakeable."
"The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are," he said. "The writ of the founders must endure."
The president further emphasized that protecting such values is essential to honoring 9/11 victims, as well as the troops in Afghanistan today, who are fighting against enemies that "respect no religious freedom."
"Al-Qaida's cause is not Islam - it's a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders - they're terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children," Obama said. "In fact, al-Qaida has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion - and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."
"So that's who we're fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms - it is the strength of our values," he continued. "The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status."
The president's remarks have significantly raised the stakes in the debate over the proposed 15-story, $100 million center, which, so far, sees most Americans in disagreement with the project.
A poll released by CNN/Opinion Research this week showed that 68 percent of Americans oppose the construction of the center, including 54 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans.
New York polls are similar, with results showing 61 percent of the state's residents in opposition to the project, according to a survey from the Siena College Research Institute.
Politicians and religious leaders have also been divided over the issue.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a staunch supporter of the project, and lauded Obama's words as a "clarion defense of the freedom of religion."
"Two hundred and twenty years ago this week, the Father of Our Country penned his famous letter to the Jewish Community of Newport Rhode Island or, as he called them, 'the Children of the Stock of Abraham.' President Obama's words tonight evoked President Washington's own August reminder that 'all possess alike liberty,'" Bloomberg said in a statement.
Other New Yorkers, including Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), believe the president is mistaken.
"It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero," King told MSNBC. "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."
New York Governor Dave Paterson also believes that the center has caused too much controversy, and last week offered state support to move the project to a different location. The center's developers denied the offer.
On Tuesday, the Muslim Canadian Congress cited verses from Koran to show that the center is creating "fitna" or "mischief-making," which is forbidden in Islam.
"The Qur'an commands us Muslims to, 'be considerate when you debate with the People of the Book' -- i.e., Jews and Christians," the group said in a letter to Imam Feisal, one of the center's founders. "Building an exclusive place of worship for Muslims at the place where Muslims killed thousands of New Yorkers, is not being considerate or sensitive, it is undoubtedly an act of fitna."
National Council of Churches General Secretary the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, meanwhile, condemned much of the outcry against the center as being built on "narrow-minded intolerance."
The outcry is based on "the same ignorance that has led many to the outrageous conclusion that all Muslims advocate hatred and violence against non-Muslims," Kinnamon said. "It is the same ignorance that has led to hate crimes and systematic discrimination against Muslims, and to calls to burn the Qur'an."
Kinnamon added that millions of Muslims experience discrimination because of "a tiny minority whose violent acts defy the teachings of Mohammed."
"How will we explain our ignorance and our compliance to our grandchildren?" he said.
"It's time to turn away from ignorance and embrace again the words of Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself," Kinnamon added. "In that spirit, we welcome the building of Cordoba House and Mosque near Ground Zero."