President Obama on Saturday sought to clarify his comments supporting the building of a mosque near Ground Zero that have ignited a political firestorm ahead of a difficult election season for Democrats.
During a trip to Florida for a family vacation, Obama said his comments from Friday night were only directed at the constitutional right of the mosque to be there, and whether preventing the mosque's construction impinges on the right to freedom of religion.
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he said in response to a reporter's question after he spoke about efforts to aid the Gulf Coast region. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
Obama came under instant fire after jumping into the middle of a cultural clash Friday night during an Iftar dinner to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"Just to be clear, the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night. It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans. What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that If a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque."
Republicans and some victims’ advocates have strongly condemned Obama's support for the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
While no one has voiced opposition to the construction of the mosque, critics are concerned that the center's proposed location is insensitive to those affected by the terror attacks.
"I oppose the planned location of a mosque in close proximity to Ground Zero," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement released Saturday. "The concerns of the 9/11 victims’ families and the citizens of New York City should be respected."
McCain added that hoped that the parties involved would be able to "sit down and discuss an alternative location for the mosque that would meet with the approval of" New Yorkers and the victims of the terror attacks.
"Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see," said Debra Burlingame, a spokeswoman for some Sept. 11 victims' families and the sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks.
Building the mosque at Ground Zero, she said, "is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah."
Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son was killed at the World Trade Center, said the president had failed to understand the issue. "As an Obama supporter, I really feel that he's lost sight of the germane issue, which is not about freedom of religion," she said. "It's about a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were lost."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the president is "wrong."
"It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero," he said in a written statement.
"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," he said. "The right and moral thing for President Obama to have done was to urge Muslim leaders to respect the families of those who died and move their mosque away from ground zero. Unfortunately, the president caved into political correctness."
Congressman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. however, who represents Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero applauded Obama's remarks at the White House, saying that "Hate should have no place in America."
"As the member of Congress who represents Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero, I commend President Obama's statement on the Cordoba House and his support of our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and separation of church and state," Nadler said in a statement Saturday.
"Government has no business deciding whether there should or should not be a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero. The United States was founded on the principle of religious liberty and tolerance, and it is equally important 234 years later that we uphold this principle."
Entering the highly charged election-year debate, Obama surely knew that his words would not only make headlines in the U.S. but be heard by Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out to the global Muslim community, and the over 100 guests at Friday's dinner in the State Dining Room included ambassadors and officials from numerous nations where Islam is observed, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
While his pronouncement concerning the mosque might find favor in the Muslim world, Obama's stance runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved. A number of Democratic politicians have shied away from the controversy.
Opponents, including some Sept. 11 victims' relatives, see the prospect of a mosque so near the destroyed trade center as an insult to the memory of those killed by Islamic terrorists in the 2001 attacks.
"The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a written statement. "That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding. This is not an issue of law, whether religious freedom or local zoning. This is a basic issue of respect of a tragic moment in our history."
Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told Fox News that Obama seems to misunderstand that Islam is not just a religion, but also a political doctrine. He also said the mosque is being run by a man who accused the U.S. of being an accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Santorum compared the ground zero mosque to a minister who wants to builds a church near the location where the Rev. Martin Luther King was killed but preaches racial separation and the notion that King brought his death upon himself.
"I don't think Barack Obama would say, 'Well we have religious tolerance, we're going to allow them to do that,'" he said. "That is the wrong way to look at this. This is not whether it's a legal right to do it. People have legal rights to do a lot of things in this country."
The imam is "ignoring the will of the American public, as by the way, Barack Obama is by siding with him," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.