COLUMBUS, Ohio — US President Barack Obama said Wednesday he had "no regrets" about defending the right of Muslims to build a mosque near the New York site of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"The answer is: No regrets," the president told NBC television on the sidelines of a visit to a middle-class family aimed at highlighting his efforts to revive the sputtering US economy ahead of November congressional elections.
Obama upset some of his Democratic allies late last week by joining a bitter national debate over the plans, affirming the right to build on religious freedom grounds but without endorsing what he called the "wisdom" of doing so.
His remarks drew immediate fire from his Republican foes, including possible contenders for the White House in 2012, who have denounced the project as offending the memory of those killed in the attacks.
And Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, facing a stiff re-election challenge, came out against the project just days after Obama spoke after Reid's Republican rival Sharron Angle pressed the veteran lawmaker on the issue.
Some Democrats reportedly worried that Obama's comments would give the controversy fresh prominence in races around the country at a time when at least one opinion poll has found the public deeply uneasy about the project.
The president's remarks came as Democratic US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the fate of the project -- an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero -- was a "local decision."
"The freedom of religion is a constitutional right. Where a place of worship is located is a local decision," she said in a statement.
Pelosi said she backed calls for transparency regarding who is funding the project, which reportedly will cost 100 million dollars, but that it was also necessary to know who was bankrolling opposition to it.
Republicans have denounced the planned construction on grounds that building a Muslim place of worship near where Islamist extremists attacked the United States offends the memory of the victims of 9/11.
Some critics have also cited opposition from some relatives of those killed in the strikes that brought down the World Trade Center's twin towers -- though other victims' family members have also backed the project.
Pelosi urged "all of those expressing concern about the 9/11 families" to support legislation -- opposed by Republicans -- aimed at helping emergency workers coping with serious health problems stemming from their exposure to hazardous materials when they responded to the attacks.
Pelosi's statement largely echoed Obama's own remarks on the issue, which played up the US Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion while omitting any explicit endorsement or criticism of the project.
But Republicans have served notice that they plan to challenge Democrats on the issue in the run up to the November elections that will decide control of the US Congress.
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