Backing Muslims' right to build centre not an endorsement: Obama

Speaking to reporters during a family vacation visit to Panama City, Florida, Obama reiterated the stand he took Friday night at a White House iftar dinner observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," Obama was quoted as saying in various media reports.

But he went on to explain that he was not endorsing the construction of the Islamic centre.

"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."

Obama's speech Friday brought down an avalanche of criticism from the right.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin mocked Obama from her Twitter feed Saturday, saying: "We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? This is not above your pay grade."

She also compared building the facility to building a Serbian church on the Srebrenica killing fields.

But Obama's remarks also upset many of his fellow Democrats, who fear Obama taking a stand on the issue of building a mosque so close to the spot where thousands of Americans lost their lives September 11, 2001, could further alienate swing voters in the November mid-term elections.

A CNN poll this month found that 68 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea; among independents, 70 percent were against it.

White House officials said the president's comments Saturday were not at odds with what he had said the night before - and they insisted they should not be seen as Obama backing down because of political pressure. He was merely clarifying his position, they said.

The Cordoba House, as the 15-story Islamic complex is known, is planned for a site two blocks from Ground Zero where a damaged building now stands. After months of debate, New York officials have now cleared the project for construction.

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