President Obama voiced his strongest support yet Friday for a plan to locate a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero in New York City, saying constructing the facility there was an "inalienable right."
Asked during a Friday news conference what he thought the reaction would be if the site were moved, Obama replied: "This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights. One of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely. And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site."
Debra Burlingame, the sister of an American Airlines pilot who died in the 9/11 attacks, and who leads a group of 9/11 families staunchly opposed to the ground zero mosque location, told Newsmax in an exclusive interview that there now can be no doubt President Obama supports the specific location of the controversial mosque.
"There's no question now," Burlingame tells Newsmax. "He was given an opportunity. The question was posed: 'We all know there's freedom of religion, but where do you stand on the wisdom of putting this mosque there?' And his answer was to go back to this Koran burning, and how that would inflame the passions of more than a billion Muslims.
"He seems to utterly ignore or dismiss the passions or the sensibilities of 300 million Americans, including America Muslims, who told us this mosque, without question, will be interpreted in the Muslim world as ratification of the attacks that took place nine years ago, that it will be used to recruit jihadis and that it will endanger our troops," Burlingame told Newsmax.
When asked during Friday's news conference to comment further on the specific location, Obama appeared to bristle, stating: "I think I've been pretty clear on my position."
That was a reference to Obama's initial, strong support in mid-August for the Park51 mosque project.
A day later, the president qualified his remarks by saying: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."
But this time the question put to Obama specifically addressed the wisdom of placing a 15-story, $100 million community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero — a location has been sharply criticized by many survivors of the 9/11 disaster, and others across the political spectrum, as culturally insensitive despite its constitutionally protected status.
"Now I recognize the extraordinary sensitivities around 9/11," Obama continued. "I've met with families of 9/11 victims in the past. I can only imagine the continuing pain and anguish and sense of loss that they may go through. And tomorrow we as Americans are going to be joining them in prayer and remembrance.
"But I go back to what I said earlier," he went on. "We are not at war against Islam. We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or have falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts. And we've got to be clear about that. We've got to be clear about that because … if we're going to successfully reduce the terrorist threat, then we need all the allies we can get. The folks who are most interested in a war between the United States or the West and Islam is al-Qaida. That's what they've been banking on."
Obama suggested that objecting to the mosque location would amount to "acting as if their religion is somehow offensive." And he pointed out that many Muslims serve in harm's way in the U.S. military.
"They are Americans. And we honor their service," he said. "And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us. And that is a principle that I think is going to be very important for us to sustain, and I think tomorrow is an excellent time for us to reflect on that."
There could be little question that Obama's statement, coming on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, would open fresh emotional wounds among 9/11 family members.
Ironically, the president's impassioned defense of the ground zero mosque location came even as he appeared to suggest he is reserving the right as commander in chief to step in and take steps to prevent a Florida pastor from burning the Koran to protest Islamic shariah law and the ground zero mosque location.
Several Muslim countries have sent diplomatic messages to the administration asking it to step in and stop the Koran burning. Members of Terry Jones' church now say that event has merely been "postponed," but not halted, after a deal to relocate the ground zero mosque failed to materialize.
Jones told the media he had been lied to when he was told that an understanding had been reached that the ground zero mosque would be moved.
The pressure on Obama to somehow stop the Koran burning, which is not expected to occur on Saturday as originally anticipated, appears to be growing domestically as well.
On Friday's Morning Joe Program on MSNBC, commentator Donnie Deutsch and former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan both urged Obama to have Jones arrested if necessary.
"I would find some legal reason, taxes, something, just get in there and take him away," Deutsch said. "I'm sorry, it's national defense, this is what a commander in chief does."
"This is absurd," Buchanan said. "We've got the general in command of our troops saying men will die … the president sent those men into battle. What he should do, is they should try to persuade this pastor to stand down. And if he doesn't, act! For heaven's sakes, in 1951 Harry Truman ordered the steel mills of the United States seized, rather than allow a potential strike to happen."
Obama himself appeared to open the door to taking executive action to stop the Koran burning on Friday by stating his role as commander in chief.
Obama also expressed concern that many other groups and individuals around the nation might also decide to protest the ground zero mosque by burning Korans, which would further damage U.S. interests and threaten military personnel abroad.
"There's no doubt that when someone goes out of their way to be provocative in ways that we know can inflame the passions of over a billion Muslims around the world, at a time when we've got our troops in a lot of Muslim countries, that's a problem," Obama said. "And it has made life a lot more difficult for our men and women in uniform, who already have a very difficult job."
Burlingame adds that the president's castigation of the Koran burning while supporting the ground zero mosque site represents a clear double standard.
She added that the president could have encouraged that Muslim leaders to compromise and move the mosque to another location.
"The president refused to do that, and I think this is another example of the president appeasing and appealing and forbearing always to the Muslim world, without regard to how his citizens — now at 72 percent [opposed] — [feel about the site] being at ground zero," she said.
Burlingame charged that the president appears to be more sensitive to Muslim sensibilities than to those of people in the United States. "He cares nothing about the sensibilities of Americans. And if that mosque inflames passions of our enemies in terms of endangering our troops, well, that just has to take a second seat," she said.
"I just think that the president is completely out of touch with the American people," Burlingame added. "And that is sad to me, especially as we're preparing for this solemn [9/11 memorial] ceremony."
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