Obama said Friday Muslims have the right to build an Islamic center "on private property in lower Manhattan" as a matter of religious freedom. Speaking at a White House celebration of the beginning of Ramadan, a holy month in Islam, the president said freedom of religion is constitutionally protected but acknowledged it is often accompanied by controversy.
He cited current debate about plans to construct mosques in several U.S. communities -- particularly in New York, where plans call for an Islamic community center and mosque near the site where al-Qaida extremists crashed jetliners into the Twin Towers Sept. 11, 2001, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
The president said he understands "the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground."
"But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," he said. "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."
The president said al-Qaida is not made up of religious leaders but of "terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children."
"That is who we are fighting against," he said.
Obama told reporters in Florida Saturday the purpose of Friday's remarks was to stress the importance of staying "focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about."
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," he said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton issued a statement saying the president was 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," Burton said.