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Heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali weighs in on proposed ban on Muslims

Former boxing champion Muhammad Ali on Dec. 9 appeared to join the chorus condemning the proposal by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to temporarily stop Muslims from entering the country.

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali, 72, said in a statement that appeared in a report by NBC News headlined: “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States.” Ali did not actually name Trump.

The Louisville, Kentucky-born Ali, a three-time world heavyweight champion who joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and later converted to Sunni Islam, also took aim at Islamist extremists.

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” Ali said in the statement. “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”

“I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” he said.

Robert Gunnell, a spokesman for Ali, said later the statement “was not a direct response to Donald Trump. This statement was Muhammad Ali’s belief that Muslims must reject Jihadist extremist views.”

Asked by Reuters why the headline on the statement was later changed to “Statement from Muhammad Ali Calling on all Muslims to Stand Up Against Jihadist Radical Agenda,” Gunnell said in an email it was “not meant toward Trump so we edited the headline.”

Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the November 2016 presidential election, has been harshly criticized by world leaders and fellow Republicans for saying that Muslims, including would-be immigrants, students and tourists, should be blocked from entering the country.

His proposal followed last week’s deadly shootings in San Bernardino, California, last week by a married couple inspired by Islamic State militants.

Muhammad Ali receives civil rights award

Retired boxing champ Muhammad Ali was known as “The Greatest” inside the ring. But some say the moniker has been even more fitting in the years since he hung up his gloves.

Ali came to Philadelphia last week to receive the Liberty Medal for his longtime role as a heavyweight for humanitarian causes, civil rights and religious freedom. Among those celebrating his latest honor at the National Constitution Center were former basketball star Dikembe Mutombo and Joe Louis Barrow II, the son of boxer Joe Louis.

“Knowing you since I was a little boy has given me a ringside seat to history,” an emotional Barrow said. “But it’s your character outside the ring that speaks to the hope of the least and lost among us.”

The 70-year-old Ali, hobbled by a 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, did not speak. But he stood with assistance to receive the medal from his daughter Laila Ali.

He looked down at his medal for several moments and then waved to the crowd. The award comes with a $100,000 cash prize.

Ali was born Cassius Clay but changed his name after converting to Islam in the 1960s. He refused to serve in the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs and was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling later cleared him of a draft evasion conviction, and he regained the boxing title in 1974 and again 1978.

One of his most famous fights took place in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he battled George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974.

At the ceremony Thursday, Mutombo recalled the impression Ali’s visit made on him as an 8-year-old growing up in that country.

“He changed my life,” said Mutombo, who also is a trustee of the Constitution Center. “I can never forget how inspired I was to see a black athlete receive such respect and admiration. He changed how the people of Zaire saw themselves, and in turn how the world saw them.”

Since ending his boxing career in 1981, Ali has traveled extensively on international charitable missions and devoted his time to social causes.

Ali received the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2005. He also has established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix and a namesake educational and cultural institute in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky.

“You know, my father loves people and people love my father, and I learned that at a very young age, as people would always come up to him wherever we went,” Laila Ali said. “My father has always lived his life to make this world better for others.”

The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, is dedicated to increasing public understanding of the Constitution and the ideas and values it represents. It awards the Liberty Medal annually to a person who displays courage and conviction while striving to secure freedom for people around the world.

Previous Liberty Medal recipients include rock singer and human rights activist Bono, former South African President Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter. Six winners later received Nobel Peace Prizes.

Also presenting the honor to Ali on Thursday were U.S. Olympic athletes Claressa Shields and Susan Francia. Last month, the 17-year-old Shields became the first U.S. girl or woman to win a gold medal in boxing. Francia is a two-time rowing gold medalist from Abington, just north of Philadelphia.