US President Barack Obama has backed the construction of a proposed mosque and Muslim cultural center near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," Obama said to applause at an event attended by diplomats from Islamic countries and members of the US Muslim community.
"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," he said.
The President has weighed in for the first time in a national debate that has grown increasingly heated in recent weeks.
Many families of those killed in the attacks have mounted an emotional campaign to block the community center, calling it provocative and a betrayal of the memory of the victims.
Conservative politicians such as former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, a Republican former Speaker of the House of Representatives, also have called for the project to be scrapped.
Earlier this month a New York city agency cleared the way for construction of the community center, which will include a prayer room, two blocks from 'Ground Zero'.
About 2,750 people were killed in the September 11 attacks, when al Qaeda hijackers crashed two passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The attacks deeply traumatized Americans and sparked the US invasion of Afghanistan and the Bush administration's "war on terror."