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Obama mosque dispute: In backing plans, he parts with many Americans

The president has given backing to an Islamic center near ground zero. The Obama mosque support may be well received by the Muslim world, but it will hardly buoy his struggling ratings in US polls.

President Barack Obama hosts an iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Friday. Obama emphasized the American tenet of religious freedom just as New York City is immersed in a deeply sensitive debate about whether a mosque should be built near the site of the World Trade Center.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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A number of newspaper columnists and even Republicans such as former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson praised President Obama for his studied affirmation of American religious rights Friday in supporting the building of a mosque just blocks from ground zero. There, more than 2,700 Americans died on Sept. 11, 2001, at the hands of Islamist terrorists.

But the Obama mosque decision – wading into an issue that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs only days earlier had called "a matter for ... the local community to decide" – is also likely to affirm a broadening political view in the United States that the president is out of step with mainstream America. Nearly 70 percent of people feel an Islamic center near ground zero is disrespectful, even deliberately provocative, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll.

"Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground," Obama told attendees at the second annual White House Ramadan dinner Friday night. "But let me be clear: As a citizen, and as president, I believe that 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

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