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White House: Obama's Mosque Visit 'Fits in Constellation' of Religious Freedom Events

President Obama tours the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The White House suggested today that President Obama’s trip this week to a local mosque represents a balancing out of bookend events with Jewish and Christian communities.

Press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at the daily briefing today that Obama is “certainly looking forward to his trip to the Islamic Society of Baltimore,” his first official visit to a U.S. mosque in more than seven years in office.

“It will be an opportunity for the president to celebrate the contributions that Muslim-Americans have made to our nation,” Earnest said. “But to also reaffirm the importance that religious freedom has to our way of life. And you know, there obviously has been some discussion about this in the context of the political debate in the country. And you know, this is — the president’s visit I think, is an important moment to acknowledge those two things.”

“I mean, I think it’s also worth noting the context in which his visit occurs. Obviously, the president last week, had the opportunity to visit the Israeli Embassy to speak at the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony. And of course, later this week, the president will speak at the National Prayer Breakfast.”

Last week’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day event at the embassy included filmmaker Steven Spielberg and a video message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The National Prayer Breakfast has Christian hosts yet welcomes guests each year from a range of faiths. The president traditionally delivers remarks.

“So, you know, I think this sort of fits in the constellation of events the president is doing to talk about religious liberty and to talk about the role that faith plays in our public debate,” Earnest continued. “I think it will also be an opportunity for the president to talk about the role that faith plays, even in his own life.”

Asked why Obama is just now visiting a mosque, despite earlier invitations from Muslim groups, the press secretary said “it’s hard to just sort of explain why we didn’t do something.”

“I think I can do my best to try to explain to you why we are doing something. And I think in this case, you know, it’s an opportunity for the president to celebrate the contributions of the Muslim American community to our country,” Earnest said.

“It’s also an opportunity to reaffirm that religious freedom and religious tolerance essential to our way of life in this country. It certainly is central to the kinds of values that were present at the formation of this country. And those values endure in more than — more than 240 years later.”

Earnest said the administration anticipates pushback from Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, but the president “believes that this kind of visit is important for the country.”

“We anticipate that the president’s visit to a mosque will be rather conspicuous. All of you will be interested in covering it,” he said. “I won’t be surprised if there are some of the president’s critics that decide to criticize the president for doing it. But all of that, I think, will serve to elevate a debate that the president believes is worth having.”

He couldn’t say why the White House chose this mosque other than it “represents the diversity of the Muslim population in America.”

“And hopefully that will be evident from the audience that the president speaks to,” Earnest added. “But we will have more on why this mosque was chosen as the president prepares for his visit.”

Earnest was asked if Obama plans on visiting any Hindu or Sikh places of worship.

“I’m not aware of any additional travel plans that I can announce from here, but I do think you can expect that the language in the message that the president will be delivering not just at the mosque on Wednesday but also at the prayer breakfast on Thursday is that the religious diversity of the United States contributes to our strength, and drawing on that diversity allows the United States to overcome challenges that other countries are not able to surmount, and that that is — that that diversity is something that we should treasure and that freedom is something that we should work assiduously to protect,” he replied.