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In First Visit To U.S. Mosque, Obama Calls For Greater Tolerance

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland on February 3.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland on February 3.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has warned against growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States and urged Muslim leaders to speak out against extremist interpretations of Islam.

Speaking during a February 3 visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama alternated Koranic sayings with lessons from U.S. history as he pleaded for tolerance.

"We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias and targets people because of religion," he said.

The visit was the first to a mosque by Obama during his seven years in the White House, and was aimed at countering some of the anti-Islamic and antirefugee rhetoric that has punctuated the U.S. presidential election campaign and elsewhere.

Before the speech, he met with several Muslim religious leaders and activists from around the country.

As he arrived at the school, located just west of Baltimore, Obama encountered several protesters chanting what sounded like anti-Islamic religious slogans.

The visit comes amid a growing number of hate incidents that have targeted mosques and Muslims more broadly, particularly since the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, in December and the coordinated terror attacks in Paris a month earlier. Both involved people who espoused extremist Islamic ideology.

In the weeks that followed the California shooting, a severed pig's head was delivered to a Philadelphia mosque, and police have investigated a fire at a mosque in southern California as arson.

The election campaign to succeed Obama in the White House has also seen anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Donald Trump, a leading Republican contender and billionaire real estate developer, in November called for a national database for U.S. Muslims, an idea that was loudly denounced by both Democrats and many Republicans.

A month later, Trump called for banning all Muslims from entering the United States.

Obama did not mention Trump or any other political leaders or officials who have been outspoken in their criticism of Muslims, but he denounced that rhetoric.

"We have to be consistent in condemning hateful rhetoric," he said. "None of us can be silent. We can't be bystanders to bigotry."

With fears growing for some Americans that radicalized Muslims could commit terrorist attacks similar to the California rampage, Obama also tried to push back against efforts by groups like the extremist Islamic State (IS) organization.

"I refuse to give them legitimacy, we must never give them that legitimacy. They're not defending Islam, they're not defending Muslims. The vast majority of people they kill are innocent Muslim men, women, and children," he said.

He also said that Muslim leaders need to be outspoken both in condemning terrorist ideology, and in celebrating their own achievements.

"What is also true there is a battle of hearts and minds that takes place, that is taking place right now, and American Muslims are better positioned than anybody to show that it is possible to be faithful to Islam and be part of a pluralistic society, and to be on the cutting edge of science and to believe in democracy," he said.