President Barack Obama will make the first visit during his presidency to a U.S. mosque next week, the White House announced on Saturday, as the administration tries to promote religious tolerance at a time when rhetoric linking Islam with terrorism is becoming more voluminous.
On Wednesday the president will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a sprawling community center in the the city's western suburbs, that serves thousands of people with a place of worship, a housing complex and schools, according to its website. It is one of the Mid-Atlantic region's largest Muslim centers and describes itself as aspiring "to be the anchor of a growing Muslim community with diverse backgrounds, democratically governed, relating to one another with inclusiveness and tolerance, and interacting with neighbors in an Islamic exemplary manner."
On Saturday, a White House official said in an email that the president is making the visit: "to celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life."
"The President believes that one of our nation's greatest strengths is our rich diversity and the very idea that Americans of different faiths and backgrounds can thrive together - that we're all part of the same American family. As the President has said, Muslim Americans are our friends, and neighbors; our co-workers, and sports heroes - and our men and women in uniform defending our country."
At the Islamic Society, the president will hold a round table with community members, the official said.
For years Muslim Americans have lobbied the president to visit a mosque in order to counter the perception that Islam is inextricably linked to terrorism.
The trip to Baltimore comes a month after several prominent Muslim Americans met with senior White House officials to discuss concerns about rising hostility toward people of their faith. During that session - attended by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muñoz and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes - the Islamic leaders asked for Obama to visit a mosque, ideally with former president George W. Bush, as well.
Bush visited the Islamic Cultural Center of Washington D.C. six days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, where he declared, "Islam is peace," and "the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam."
At a time when some leading Republican presidential candidates, including businessman Donald Trump, have suggested barring foreign Muslims from entering the country, Obama has taken pains to criticize rhetoric that stereotypes one faith group.
"When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer," Obama said during his State of the Union address earlier this month. "That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country."
It wasn't immediately clear why the White House selected the Islamic Society in Baltimore, although it has been the subject of threats in recent months. Baltimore County beefed up security there last spring after it received two phone threats, one citing a bomb and the other from someone threatening to "spill Muslim blood," CBS Baltimore reported at the time.
It also is the mosque of the family of Adnan Syed, whose conviction for murder drew huge global interest when his story was told through the radio podcast "Serial." The series was made because of the activism of a friend of Syed's family from the Islamic Society, Rabia Chaudry, a Greenbelt lawyer who advises law enforcement about Islam, the Baltimore Sun reported in 2014.
Obama has visited mosques overseas, but never one in this country while serving as president.
"I think it would be enormously comforting and also send powerful message to Americans about recommitting to religious freedom - especially if we had Bush and Obama visit together," Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy group, said last month when she met with the president's aides.
Obama's relationship with American Muslim has been complicated. They are among his most enthusiastic backers, but some feel he has not done enough to address their concerns at a time of social unrest.
He has shown support for Muslims overseas, including the 2009 "New Beginning" speech in Cairo before the Arab Spring, and he has drawn praise -- and intense criticism from conservatives -- for declining to connect Islam and terrorism.
However, concern about profiling and domestic surveillance at mosques has escalated under Obama, and some Muslim leaders expressed concern last year when he held a key summit about violent extremism that focused significantly on Muslim extremism.
And though Obama is a Christian, many Americans remain convinced he actually follows the Islamic faith. Recent polls show that 29 percent of Americans, and nearly 45 percent of Republicans, believe he is a Muslim.