The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report
President Barack Obama on Friday endorsed plans for a Muslim mosque two blocks from ground zero in New York City, declaring that "Muslims have the 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. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."
Obama acknowledged the fiery emotions the planned mosque and cultural center have stoked.
"Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," the president said.
"But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the 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 Islam is not the enemy, al-Qaida is.
"We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led our response to that attack — from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today," he said.
"Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaida's cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders — they're terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. 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."
The New York mosque would be part of a 13-story, $100 million Islamic center that would feature a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool and a gym. It's a project of the Cordoba Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes improved relations between Islam and the West.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., disagreed.
"President Obama is wrong," King said. "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 mosque has drawn vocal opposition from many relatives of Sept. 11 victims and local and national Republican leaders. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, is also opposed.
Conservative politicians such as former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, a Republican former Speaker of the House of Representatives, also have called for the project to be scrapped.
Mark Williams, a spokesman for the conservative Tea Party political movement, said the center would be used for "terrorists to worship their monkey god."
Obama said that Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America.
"The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan — making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the project and praised Obama's remarks Friday night.
"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."As I said last week, this proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime, and I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight," he said.