US President Barack Obama has staunchly defended controversial plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
Opponents have protested against the construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque several hundred feet away from the site of the Twin Towers.
Mr Obama acknowledged "sensitivities" surround the 9/11 site, but said Muslims have the same right to practise their religion "as anyone else".
"Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable," Mr Obama said.
Since a New York developer announced plans to build a 13-storey Islamic community centre and mosque about two blocks from the former World Trade Center site, prominent Republican politicians and a host of conservative pundits have attacked the project.
Some relatives of people killed in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 are also opposed to the plan.
'Stab in the heart'
In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, Mr Obama waded into the row, saying:
"We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country.
"That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."
He told the group of US Congressmen, government officials and foreign dignitaries that America's tradition of religious tolerance distinguishes it from "our enemies".
"Al-Qaeda's cause is not Islam," he said, "it is a gross distortion of Islam".
Until now Mr Obama had not commented on the mosque row, with the White House saying that the matter was a local issue.
In voicing his support for the right to build the centre, Mr Obama joins New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had been the only prominent politician to endorse it.
Opponents of the building project have called for investigations into its backers and financing. In New York, opponents sought unsuccessfully to have the building currently at the mosque site granted landmark protection status, in an effort to hinder development.
Former US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed the plan an "assertion of Islamist triumphalism" and has denounced it in speeches.
Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote that "to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks".