WASHINGTON – President Obama on Friday forcefully endorsed allowing a mosque near ground zero, saying the country’s founding principles demanded no less.

“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 City 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.”

Obama made the comments at an annual dinner at the White House celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

NEAR ‘HALLOWED GROUND’

The White House hadn’t previously taken a stand on the mosque, which would be part of a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people died when hijacked jetliners hit the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted it was a local matter.

It was already much more than that, sparking debate around the country as top Republicans, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, announced their opposition. So did the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group.

Obama elevated it to a presidential issue Friday without equivocation. While insisting the place where the twin towers once stood was indeed “hallowed ground,” Obama said that the proper way to honor it was to apply American values.

Obama harkened back to earlier times when the building of synagogues or Catholic churches also met with opposition. “But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, stay true to our core values and emerge stronger for it,” he said.

‘INSENSITIVE AND UNCARING’

“President Obama is wrong,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much.”

Obama’s stance runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved.

The group behind the $100 million project, the Cordoba Initiative, envisions it as a hub for interfaith interaction, as well as a place for Muslims to bridge some of their faith’s own schisms. The mosque has won approval from planning boards but faces legal challenges.