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Obama to visit Baltimore County mosque

Amid concerns about hate incidents, Obama will visit Baltimore-area mosque on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama will visit a mosque in Baltimore County on Wednesday amid growing concern about hostility directed toward Muslim Americans. It will be Obama's first visit to an American mosque as president.

Obama will deliver remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in Catonsville, and will meet with community members there to discuss religious freedom, White House officials said Saturday.

The visit is a symbolic gesture for Obama, who toured the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta in 2010, but who has not entered an American mosque during his seven years as president.

Administration officials hope the visit will send a message at a time when Muslim leaders are increasingly anxious about reactions following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Several crimes directed at Muslims have received national attention since the attacks.

"The president believes that one of our nation's greatest strengths is our rich diversity," White House spokesman Keith Maley said. "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."

The visit, Obama's second to the Baltimore region in as many weeks, will also come as Islam has featured prominently in the presidential race underway to replace him. Republican front-runner Donald Trump, in particular, has received attention after he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Polls late last year, including one conducted for The Washington Post and ABC News, indicated that a majority of Republican voters supported the idea but that most Democrats and independent voters opposed it.

Administration officials and academics have pointed to an increase in attacks against Muslims and Sikhs, prompting a meeting with faith leaders at the White House in December. Several of the leaders called for Obama to visit a mosque at that time, and White House officials said they were considering it.

Days after the Sept. 11 attacks, during a time of similar anti-Islamic sentiment, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Cultural Center of Washington.

A spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations welcomed Obama's decision.

"For a number of years we've been encouraging the president to go to an American mosque," spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. "With the tremendous rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in our country, we believe that it will send a message of inclusion and mutual respect."

The Islamic Society of Baltimore was formed in 1969 by a group of families that held weekly meetings and Friday prayers at the Johns Hopkins University, according to the group's website. The society expanded to its current site in the 1980s, building Masjid Al-Rahmah, which includes a housing complex and a primary school.

Baltimore County police said last spring that they would increase security around the campus of the society following several threats, including a phone call in which someone threatened to "spill Muslim blood," according to a report by WJZ.

Those threats occurred before the attacks in Paris and California.

Michael Smith, a resident scholar at the society, applauded Obama's decision to visit and said he hopes it will calm what he described as a measure of hysteria that has developed in some parts of the country. That fear, he believes, has been whipped up by the election.

"Hysteria is never good for unity of the country," said Smith, who is also an imam at the Islamic Society of Annapolis. "This visit by the president will show how we need to, as Americans, join hands and come together more than ever. … Now is the time for unity."

Obama was in Baltimore briefly Thursday night to speak with House Democratic lawmakers gathered at an Inner Harbor hotel for their annual retreat.

The visit will follow remarks Obama made at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony this week at the Israeli Embassy. The president is also scheduled to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday in Washington.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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