Ground Zero mosque row stirs political storm
City officials have approved the construction of $100 mn Islamic centre.
Washington: Republicans pounced on US President Barack Obama`s comments supporting the right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, painting him as out of touch less than three months before key mid-term elections.
Democrats and Republicans squared off on whether it was appropriate for Obama to wade into the fray over the Islamic centre, which would include a mosque and would be built two city blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Centre.
At a Friday Iftar dinner at the White House to mark Ramadan, Obama said Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country”, including by building a mosque in lower Manhattan.
But the next day, Obama appeared to dial back from his support, clarifying that he was commenting on rights enshrined in the US Constitution and not on "the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there”, a location he acknowledged as "hallowed ground”.
Conservatives swiftly seized on Obama`s comments, which came after the White House had for weeks declined comment on the controversy and deemed it local issue, and several prominent Republicans hammered home the message on Sunday political talk shows.
"This is not about freedom of religion, because we all respect the right of anyone to worship according to the dictates of their conscience," US Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said on Fox News on Sunday.
"But I do think it`s unwise... to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack. And I think to me it demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the President himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America."
Construction of the centre, a USD 100-million 13-storey glass and metal building to be built on private property, has been approved by city officials.
The hot-button issue has stirred raw emotions in the United States, which marks the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks next month, and Cornyn said he believes it might resonate with voters.
"I think this is sort of the dichotomy that people sense, that they`re being lectured to, not listened to, and I think that`s the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington," he said.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll this month showed that 68 percent of Americans opposed the planned mosque, while only 29 percent favoured it, although a majority did support the actual right of Muslims to build it.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, threw his support behind the centre, but few Democrats sounded openly enthusiastic about it on Sunday.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, did not answer directly if he thought the mosque should be built, but said he supported its designed intention to provide interfaith communication and dialogue.
"But it can`t be there, and I don`t think it should be allowed to be there, if it`s going to be some type of way to undercut the truth, the reality, of 9/11... which was an attack by fanatical Muslims against the United States," he told Fox News on Sunday.
Republican Representative Peter King of New York challenged Islamic leaders to "listen to the deep wounds and anguish that this is causing to so many good people" and consider moving the centre to a site further away.
"This is such a raw wound and they are just pouring salt into it," King told CNN`s State of the Union program.
On Friday, after Obama`s announcement, King said the President "caved in to political correctness”.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, appeared to mock Obama over the mosque kerfuffle.
"We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?" she posed to Obama on her Twitter feed. "This is not above your pay grade."
A significant number of Americans hold suspicions about the President, according to poll figures.
Obama is known to be a devoted Christian, but an online Harris poll conducted in March showed that 32 percent of Americans -- including 57 percent of Republicans -- believe Obama is a Muslim.
Relatives of 9/11 victims are split over the mosque plans, with one major families group in favour and another opposed.
Sally Regenhard, the mother of one of 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Centre, reportedly said Obama`s Friday comments showed "a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were lost”.