Weighing his words carefully on a fiery political issue, US President Barack Obama said Saturday that Muslims have the right to build a mosque near New York's ground zero, but he did not say whether he believes it is a good idea to do so.

Asked Saturday about comments he made during his trip to Florida, Obama said: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding."

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Obama said that "my intention was simply to let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion."

The White House quickly followed up on Obama's latest comments on the matter, with Obama spokesman Bill Burton saying that the president wasn't backing off in any way from the remarks he made Friday.

"What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque," Burton said.

Obama commented during a trip to Florida, where he expanded on a Friday night White House speech asserting that Muslims have the same right to freedom of religion as everyone else in America.

Speaking to a gathering at the White House Friday evening to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Obama said that he believes "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country."


Obama's Friday comment was taken by some to mean that he strongly supports the building of an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, something he never said.

The president's statements thrust him squarely into a debate that he had skirted for weeks and could put Democrats on the spot three months before midterm elections where they already were nervous about holding control of the House and maybe even the Senate. Until Friday, the White House had asserted that it did not want to get involved in local decision-making.

The mosque in question would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

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