WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama's endorsement of a controversial plan to build a mosque just blocks from Ground Zero poured fuel Saturday on a raging debate over religious freedom and sensitivities over the 9/11 attacks.
Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said at an Iftar meal at the White House for Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast late Friday.
That includes "the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan."
Obama had remained on the sidelines over plans to build an Islamic cultural center, which includes a mosque, two blocks away from the gaping Ground Zero hole where the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001.
But after a New York city commission on August 3 unanimously approved the plans, the president came out to fully support the project.
"This is America," Obama said, "and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."
Planners say the multi-story "Cordoba House" will include a mosque, sports facilities, theater, restaurant and possibly a day care, and would be open to all visitors to demonstrate that Muslims are part of their community.
In the remarks Obama acknowledged that the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood remains "hallowed ground," and that the 9/11 attacks "were a deeply traumatic event for our country."
The proposed location however has touched raw nerves.
On Saturday the group 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, which represents some relatives of attack victims, said it was "stunned" by the president's remarks.
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," the group said.
"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."
Building the mosque "is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah," the group claimed.
Another group representing other relatives of 9/11 victims, the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, said in May that it "strongly supports" the Islamic center.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this month showed that 68 percent of Americans opposed the Islamic center plans, while only 29 percent favored them.
Congressman Peter King, who represents New York in the US House of Representatives, said the Muslim community was "abusing" its rights and "needlessly offending" many people.
"It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero," said King, a Republican. "Unfortunately the president caved in to political correctness."
Self-described "liberal Muslim" Farzana Hassan, a Canadian, told Fox News on Saturday that she believes the Islamic center's location is "provocative."
"This is highly insensitive to the sentiments of the people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks," said Hassan, who has written books on Islam.
Obama said the Al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks do not represent Islam.
"It is a gross distortion of Islam," the president said late Friday. "In fact, Al-Qaeda 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 Council on American-Islamic Relations, a US advocacy group, said it welcomed Obama's "strong support for Muslim religious rights."
Nihad Awad, a senior CAIR official, said he hoped his remarks "will serve as encouragement to those who are challenging the rising level of Islamophobia in our society."
Awad also urged "other national political and religious leaders to speak out in defense of the freedom of religion and equality of all Americans."
One of those reacting Saturday was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion," Bloomberg said in a statement.
The proposed site "is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime," he said.
Passions over the issue run high across the country.
A Florida church has already said it will hold a "Koran-burning" on September 11 -- which this year coincides with Eid al-Fitr, the end-of-Ramadan holiday.