Thousands mourn 9/11 victims as NYC mosque protests loom

Normally apolitical ceremony tense as demonstrations against Ground Zero mosque set to begin; Obama at Pentagon says "we are not at war against Islam"; Florida pastor calls off Koran burning.

911 tribute 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
911 tribute 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
NEW YORK (AP) — Bells rang throughout a solemn New York City on Saturday to begin a day of mourning for nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 victims, with observers bracing for protests over a mosque planned near the attack site that threatened to overshadow a ceremony traditionally free of politics.
Chants of thousands of sign-waving protesters both for and against the planned Islamic center were expected after — and perhaps during — an observance normally known for a sad litany of families reading their lost loved ones' names.
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Bagpipes and drums played to open the ceremony, followed by brief comments by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"Once again we meet to commemorate the day we have come to call 9/11. We have returned to this sacred site to join our hearts together, the names of those we loved and lost," Bloomberg said. "No other public tragedy has cut our city so deeply. No other place is as filled with our compassion, our love and our solidarity."
A moment of silence began at 8:46 a.m., the time the first hijacked jetliner hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in 2001. US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were attending separate services at the Pentagon in Washington and a rural field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
But the rallies planned in New York embroiled victims' family members in a feud over whether to play politics on the ninth anniversary of the attacks.
Nancy Nee, whose firefighter brother was killed at the World Trade Center, is bitterly opposed to the Park51 proposed mosque and Islamic community center near Ground Zero. But she didn't plan to join other family members at an anti-mosque rally hours after the anniversary ceremony.
"I just wanted to be as at peace with everything that's going on as I possibly can," Nee said. Even nine years later, she said, her brother George Cain's death "is still very raw. ... And I just don't have it in me to be protesting and arguing, with anger in my heart and in my head."
The heated mosque debate — pitting advocates of religious freedom against critics who say putting an Islamic center so close to Ground Zero disrespects the dead — led Obama to remind Americans , "We are not at war against Islam."
US President Obama paid a visit to "hallowed ground" at the Pentagon to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Saturday.
He said it might be natural to focus on the searing images from "that awful morning" in 2001 when al-Qaida struck the US and so many lives "were taken so cruelly."
The president denigrated the al-Qaida attackers as "a sorry band of men" who perverted religion.
Obama said their goal was to divide and demoralize Americans. But he said "we will never hand them that victory."
He called this a day of remembrance and reflection — as well as a day of unity and renewal.
A threat to burn copies of the Muslim holy book on the anniversary — which had set off international protests — was apparently called off. The Florida pastor who made the threat flew to New York on Friday night and appeared Saturday on NBC's "Today" show.
He said his church would not burn the Koran, a plan that inflamed much of the Muslim world and drew a stern rebuke from Obama.
"We feel that God is telling us to stop," he told NBC. Pressed on whether his church would ever burn the Islamic holy book, he said: "Not today, not ever. We're not going to go back and do it. It is totally canceled."
Jones said his Gainesville, Florida, church's goal was "to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical."