Obama, in his first official visit to an American mosque, calls Republican anti-Muslim rhetoric “inexcusable”

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In a gesture that American Muslims say they’ve long waited for, US president Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Maryland, today (Feb. 3) to make a statement opposing bigotry and supporting religious freedom.

“We’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country,” he said. And “an attack on one religion is an attack on all religions.”

It was Obama’s first official appearance at a mosque in the US. Seven years into his presidency, to some observers, it happened quite late.

“But better late than never,” Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies expert at American University, told USA Today.

Amid intensifying Islamophobia in the US, the time indeed was ripe. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was still his party’s frontrunner after he called for a “total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the US” in December. Ted Cruz, who edged out Trump in the recent Iowa caucuses, frequently warns audiences about the dangers of “radical Islamic terrorism” and criticizes Obama for not using the phrase in foreign policy discussions.

Cruz and fellow candidate Jeb Bush both suggested, separately, that the US should admit only the Christian refugees fleeing Syria. And Marco Rubio asked during a December debate: “Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?”

Republicans capitalized on public misconceptions about Obama’s own religion during the 2008 and 2012 elections, leaning on the assumption that voters would not want a Muslim president. (Meanwhile, Obama is Christian, not Muslim.)

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said it has tracked a major increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the US over the past three months, after the terror attacks in Paris in November and the shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December. Most of the incidents involve vandalism at mosques across the country.

Obama sharply criticized Islamophobic behavior and rhetoric and emphasized that Muslims are just as patriotic as other American citizens today. His speech was received with mixed reviews.