President Barack Obama forcefully endorsed building a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center, saying that America’s founding principles demand no less.

The site is near where almost 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001, after Muslim hijackers flew two hijacked jetliners into the center’s twin towers, which crumbled as New Yorkers fled in terror.

“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, weighing in for the first time on a controversy that has riven New York and the nation.

“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. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

The president made his remarks at an Iftar dinner at the White House celebrating the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  In broaching the issue, Obama waded into a national controversy that has sparked passionate and at times angry debate.

President Obama had not previously commented on the matter. The White House had said it was a local issue. The mosque and community center are planned for construction two blocks from the site of the attacks.

The controversy has been much more than a local issue for some time. It has sparked debate around the country as top Republicans denounced the idea, including Sarah Palin, the party’s vice presidential candidate in 2008, and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich announced their opposition.

Obama elevated it to a presidential issue without equivocation.