PANAMA BEACH, Fla. – Standing up for the right to put a mosque near ground zero, President Barack Obama on Saturday warned that the country risks losing its distinct identity if it ignores basic American values such as religious freedom.
Obama spoke about the proposed mosque for the second time in as many days, breaking a long silence on the controversy.
He told reporters after an event in Florida that his purpose in speaking out was to “simply let people know what I thought.”
He added: “It’s very important, as difficult as some of these issues are, that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are about.”
Explaining why Obama kept silent until this point, White House aides said he wanted to wait for the right occasion and did not wish to influence New York City officials evaluating the project.
On Aug. 3, a New York commission cleared the way for an Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of where the World Trade Center once stood. Obama made his first comments on the matter Friday night at a Ramadan celebration hosted by the White House.
In his remarks Friday, Obama referred to the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks as unimaginable. “So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders,” he said. “Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.” But Obama added that America’s “commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
Obama was in the Florida Panhandle Saturday for a one-day trip with his wife, daughter Sasha and dog Bo. Daughter Malia is away at summer camp.
In remarks to the public, Obama noted progress in efforts to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and encouraged tourists to vacation in the region just as his family was doing. Later, in a round of miniature golf, Sasha carded a hole in one on the first hole. Her father gave her a high-five. “That’s how you do it, right there!” he said.
But as much as the president tried to keep the focus on the Gulf, he got a fair share of questions on the mosque.
He emphasized that he was standing up for a basic principle, not endorsing the idea of putting a mosque at that specific location.
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”