As a candidate, Barack Obama passionately defended the importance of religion in his life and in the nation's politics. As president, Obama on Friday called for a renewal of religious tolerance and a cooling of tempers against Muslims as he tried to defuse the furor over plans to build an Islamic prayer center and mosque in New York and threats to burn copies of the Koran in Florida.
Obama, a Christian whose Muslim name inflames some of his fringe opponents, didn't have to get involved in either dispute. But because of his responsibilities as president and commander-in-chief, Obama said he did.
"This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal; that they have certain inalienable rights -- one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely," Obama said.
"And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.
Obama said he was aware that some of the 9/11 families were still in pain over the attacks, making a mosque nearby so sensitive.
"Tomorrow we as Americans are going to be joining them in prayer and remembrance," the president said. "But I go back to what I said earlier: We are not at war against Islam. We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts.
The Islamic prayer center and mosque would be built blocks from the World Trade Center, which was brought down two jetliners seized by Islamist terrorists. A third plane was intentionally crashed into the Pentagon, and another plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Obama began the news conference by saying that the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks should be a day of remembrance and service. The mosque controversy has become linked to the furor over a Florida pastor's decision to burn copies of the Koran to protest the 9/11 attacks.
"The idea that we would burn the sacred text of somebody else's religion is contrary" to American principles, said Obama, who earlier this week called it a "stunt." "My hope is that this individual prays on it and refrains from doing it," he said.
Obama spoke of his duty as commander-in-chief to protect troops and U.S. interests around the world from Muslim anger over the planned Koran burning. Demonstrations have increased in Muslim countries, especially Afghanistan, where thousands have taken to the streets.
"This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters," Obama said. "You don't play games with that."
How the threatened book burning by Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., took on world-class dimensions is subject to debate. Many, including some in the Obama administration, have blamed the media's coverage for helping to elevate what is a small church with perhaps 50 members, into a global player.
"It is in the age of the Internet that something can cause us profound damage around the world, so we have to take it seriously," Obama said.
In televised interviews, Jones has gone back and forth, saying he would suspend the burning so he can meet on Saturday in New York with Muslim leaders seeking to build the controversial mosque.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, in charge of the New York effort, said he has no plans for any such meeting.