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Obama Challenges Anti-Muslim Rhetoric In First Visit To U.S. Mosque


President Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore today to make an appeal for religious tolerance. The trip comes at a time when many American Muslims feelings like they're being targeted. Obama urged non-Muslims to not be, in his words, bystanders to bigotry. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: This was the president's first visit to an American mosque since taking office, and he tried to demystify it, telling non-Muslims it's much like their own church or synagogue, a place where families come to worship, kids come to play sports and Boy Scouts salute the American flag. Muslims have been part of this country since its founding, Obama said, when Thomas Jefferson composed a statute of religious liberty to protect people of every faith.


BARACK OBAMA: By the way, Thomas Jefferson's opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim, so I was not the first.


HORSLEY: Obama said he heard from many American Muslims who feel unfairly blamed for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. When any religious group feels targeted, eh said, others have an obligation to speak out.


OBAMA: If we're serious about freedom of religion - and I'm speaking now to my fellow Christians, who remain the majority in this country - we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.


HORSLEY: Obama also denounced what he called inexcusable political rhetoric that targets Muslim. While he didn't name names, Obama was presumably referring to politicians like Donald Trump, who called in December for a temporary ban on all Muslim visitors to the U.S.


DONALD TRUMP: Probably not politically correct, but I don't care.

HORSLEY: Hours before the president spoke, the Pew Research Center released a survey which found a persistent minority of Americans - about 25 percent - harbor suspicion about Muslim Americans' patriotism. Those concerns used to cut across party lines, but they're now increasingly concentrated in the Republican Party. Researcher Besheer Mohamed says nearly two-thirds of Republicans want a president who speaks bluntly about Islamic extremism, even if that means painting all Muslims with a broad brush.

BESHEER MOHAMED: There's definitely a certain segment of the American electorate, and especially of the Republican Party, that wants to hear that sort of talk. Overall, the public is somewhat divided and has a slight preference for the next president to speak carefully.

HORSLEY: Not surprisingly, Pew found Americans who know Muslims personally tend to have more positive attitudes about the faith. Obama tried to highlight Muslims who serve in familiar roles - as soldiers, teachers, scientists and star athletes. He suggested television could do a better job showcasing Muslims in non-threatening roles. And, he argued, peaceful voices within Islam need to speak louder.


OBAMA: There is a battle of hearts and mind 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 to be part of a pluralistic society.

HORSLEY: Obama also addressed young Muslims directly, saying they don't have to choose between their country and their faith.

OBAMA: If you're ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can. As president of the United States, you fit in here - right here. You're right where you belong. You're part of America, too.

HORSLEY: Obama said repeatedly America's religious diversity is a source of strength. He's likely to make that point again tomorrow, when he speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.