Decrying anti-Muslim bias, Obama pays 1st visit to US mosque

President Barack Obama meets with members of Muslim-American community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

CATONSVILLE, Md. (AP) — President Barack Obama paid his first visit to a U.S. mosque on Wednesday, appealing for tolerance for America’s millions of Muslims and calling to confront the bias and stereotyping that he says is on the rise amid tough talk on terrorism in the presidential campaign.

At the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a suburban campus with a mosque and K-12 school, Obama sat down around a large table with Muslim university chaplains, community activists and public health professionals for a discussion about religious tolerance and freedom. He planned an afternoon speech focused on how the U.S. can more successfully confront extremism if it works with Muslims instead of branding all of them as potential enemies.

For Muslim advocates, Obama’s visit was a long-awaited gesture to a community that has warned of escalating vitriol against them that has accompanied the public’s concern about the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Although Obama has visited mosques overseas in the past, he waited until his final year in office to make such a visit at home, reflecting the sensitivity of the issue.

One of the participants meeting with Obama, Ibtihaj Muhammad, has qualified for a spot on the United States Olympic Team for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The White House said she’ll make history as the first United States Olympian to compete in a hijab.

“They all have their own story to tell about the way that they contribute to and enrich the communities in which they live,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Last week, Obama became the first sitting president to speak at the Israeli Embassy, where he warned of growing anti-Semitism. Obama’s message at the mosque will follow a similar tack. The White House said he will focus on the need to speak out against bigotry and reject indifference.

It’s the kind of effort that Muslim-Americans said they’ve been waiting for from America’s political and religious leaders.

“We never thought that when we held our first prayers in the small room nearly a half a century ago that we would be hosting the president,” said Muhammad Jameel, the mosque’s president. “Today is a new starting point. It is also a continuing journey — a journey steeped in American history and tradition.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has tracked a growing number of attacks on mosques and on individuals in the months following the Paris terrorist attack and the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. A severed pig’s head was delivered to a mosque’s doorstep in Philadelphia. Someone attempted to set fire to a mosque in Southern California.

Ibrahim Hooper, the group’s spokesman, said harassment and bullying is also on the rise. He cited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the country as an example of how bias toward Muslims has become part of the American mainstream.

“I don’t think there’s ever been this level of fear and apprehension in the Muslim-American community,” Hooper said.

For Obama, the visit in his final year in office reflects a willingness to wade into touchy social issues that often eluded him earlier in his presidency. For years, Obama has fought incorrect claims that he’s actually a Muslim and was born in Kenya, beliefs that polls suggest remain prevalent among many Republicans. Obama, a Christian, was born in Hawaii.

With no plans to ever again appear on a ballot, Obama faces less pressure to avoid political controversy. Ahead of his visit Wednesday, White House officials readily acknowledged the visit could spark controversy but suggested that would help make his point about ignorance and religious bias. White House press secretary Josh Earnest predicted Obama’s visit would “prompt exactly the kind of discussion and debate that the president thinks is worth having.”

In 2001, President George W. Bush visited a mosque on Washington’s Embassy row just days after 9/11, urging Americans to get back to everyday business and not turn against their Muslim neighbors.

Nearly half of Americans think at least some U.S. Muslims are anti-American, according to a new Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday. Two-thirds of Americans said people, not religious teachings, are to blame when violence is committed in the name of faith. However, when respondents were asked which religion they consider troubling, Islam was the most common answer.

Meanwhile, some Republicans have criticized Obama for not linking attacks like the one in Paris to “radical Islamic terrorism.” Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Trump have voiced that concern. Obama has said describe the Islamic State and other such groups that way only fuels their false claim to be fighting on behalf of Islam.

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Josh Lederman in Washington and AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.

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