NEW YORK (CBS 2) — President Barack Obama says Muslims have the right to build a mosque at Ground Zero, but does that mean he thinks it’s a good idea?
While visiting the Gulf Coast on Saturday, the president elaborated on what he said Friday during a dinner with Muslim leaders.
Obama clarified his statements about the Ground Zero mosque, saying he supports the right of Muslims to build it, but he wouldn’t say whether he thinks they should build it.
“I will not comment on the wisdom of the decision to put a mosque there,” Obama said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates to our founding.”
President Obama first broke his silence on the politically charged issue Friday night, with a comment at a White House dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“Let me be clear: as a citizen and as a president, I believe Muslims have a right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country, and that includes the right to build a house of worship and community center on private property in Lower Manhattan,” he said.
It’s the same message Mayor Bloomberg has been delivering for some time now.
“We would be untrue to the best parts of ourselves, as New Yorkers and Americans, if we say no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan,” Bloomberg said.
Republican Congressman Peter King responded strongly to President Obama’s stance.
“I strongly disagree with the president, the president is wrong. The mosque does not belong near Ground Zero,” Rep. King said. “With their right [to build the mosque] is the responsibility to relocate this mosque and take it away from Ground Zero.”
Retired FDNY chief Jim Riches says the controversy over the mosque slated to be built just steps from Ground Zero has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with sensitivity for those killed on 9/11.
“Historically, they’ve put mosques where they’ve had their conquests, and I think they’re doing that here,” Riches said.
Riches’ eldest son Jimmy, a firefighter, was killed in the attacks. The Riches are an FDNY family – all four sons and father are firefighters. For them, the proposed proximity of the mosque to the site of the attack is painful.
“We’re not against them practicing Islam – we know not all Muslims did this,” Riches said. “We think they should be a little more sensitive and move this just a little further away from Ground Zero.”
Debra Burlingame, co-founder of the group “9/11 Families For A Safe & Strong America,” argued “Muslims have worshipped in New York without incident both before and after the attacks of 9/11. This controversy is not about religious freedom.”
Burlingame excoriated the president, saying he “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. Since that dark day, Americans have been asked to bear the burden of defending those values, again and again and again. Now this president declares that the victims of 9/11 and their families must bear another burden. We must stand silent at the last place in America where 9/11 is still remembered with reverence or risk being called religious bigots.”
“We are stunned by the president’s willingness to disregard what Americans should be proud of: our enduring generosity to others on 9/11–a day when human decency triumphed over human depravity. On that day, when 3,000 of our fellow human beings were killed in barbaric act of raw religious intolerance unlike this country had ever seen, Americans did not turn outward with hatred or violence, we turned to each other, armed with nothing more than American flags and countless acts of kindness,” Burlingame said.
“In a breathtakingly inappropriate setting, the president has chosen to declare our memories of 9/11 obsolete and the sanctity of Ground Zero finished. No one who has lived this history and felt the sting of our country’s loss that day can truly believe that putting our families through more wrenching heartache can be an act of peace,” she added.
Despite the on-going controversy, though, the construction of the Islamic center appears to have a green light.
CBS 2 reached out to the Cordoba Islamic Center for comment, but calls were not returned.