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Obama’s Mosque Comments Ignite Political Passions

Local, National Leaders Weigh In On Obama's Comments
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President Obama (File Photo by Jeff Haynes/Getty Images)

President Obama (File Photo by Jeff Haynes/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBS 2/AP) – The White House responded Monday to a firestorm of criticism ignited by President Obama’s remarks about building a mosque near Ground Zero. Critics say he’s butting into a local issue he should have stayed out of.

While the White House said Monday that politics wasn’t a factor in the President remarks, what he said has certainly become politicized.

“This is America,” Mr. Obama said. “Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

He was taking a stand on the building of a mosque and Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site, an issue the White House had previously avoided.

“As a citizen and as president, I believe Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country, and 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,” he said over the weekend.

But then, a day later, the President seemed to equivocate, commenting that while Muslims have the right to build a mosque, he wasn’t necessarily suggesting they should – and that set the political airwaves on fire:

“He can’t be changing his position from day-to-day on an issue which does go to our constitution,” said Rep. Peter King (R-NY).

“This wouldn’t be a controversy if it was a proposal to build a synagogue or a church,” said Tim Kaine, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid broke ranks with the President and said he believes the mosque should not be built near Ground Zero.

In a statement, Reid said the first amendment protects freedom of religion and he respects that, but the mosque should be built somewhere else.

“I think [his comments] tell you that he has a very disdainful view of the American people,” said Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“The White House, the administration, the President himself seem to be disconnected from the mainstream of America,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

According to recent polls, nearly two thirds of Americans are against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” And, with mid-term elections looming, Republicans see the President’s stand on this very unpopular issue as yet more ammunition to take seats from the Democrats, but others say there are bigger issues at hand.

“I can’t imagine that any American, given the challenges facing this country, is going to vote based on what he said about the mosque,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accused Democrats and Republicans of politicizing the issue, but declined to take a position on the mosque.

Adding more fuel to the fire, the leader of Hamas said Sunday that Muslims “have to build” a mosque near Ground Zero.

Mahmoud al-Zahar said Muslims “have to build everywhere” so that followers can pray, just like Christians and Jews build their places of worship.

Al-Zahar spoke Sunday on “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio” on WABC-AM. He is a co-founder of Hamas and its chief on the Gaza Strip.

Sen. Chuck Schumer saids Al-Zahar’s comments don’t carry any weight because Hamas is a terrorist organization. Schumer hasn’t taken a stand on the mosque.

Rep. King, who opposes the mosque, said he won’t respond to Hamas.

The mosque is a project of the Cordoba Initiative, an advocacy group that claims to promote improved relations between Islam and the West. It didn’t respond to Al-Zahar’s comments.

(TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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