US remembers 9/11 victims as tensions rise over mosque

NYC ceremony tense as demonstrations for and against Ground Zero mosque begin; Obama at Pentagon: "We are not at war against Islam."

Ground Zero Protest 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ground Zero Protest 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
NEW YORK— Tensions flared over plans to build a mosque near ground zero as rival demonstrations took place after family members of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks recited loved one's names through tears at a somber ceremony marking the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the US.
After Saturday's official ceremony, around 2,000 activists rallied about five blocks from the site of the 2001 attacks to support the proposed Islamic community center. About 1,500 mosque opponents gathered nearby, chanting "USA, USA" and "No mosque here."
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In an annual tradition, two bright blue beams of light rose from lower Manhattan in memory of the fallen towers on Saturday night.
Speaking at the Pentagon, where 184 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, US President Barack Obama alluded to the controversy over the mosque — and a Florida pastor's threat, later rescinded, to burn copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Obama rejected the terrorists' efforts to spark conflicts among faiths.
"They may seek to exploit our freedoms, but we will not sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. They may wish to drive us apart, but we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice," Obama said.
"As Americans we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam," the president said. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day — it was al-Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."
Family members gathering at observances in New York and Pennsylvania brought flowers, pictures of loved ones and American flags, but no signs of opposition or support for the mosque. As they read victims' names, they urged a restrained tone.
Shortly after the city's memorial service, groups of protesters took up positions in lower Manhattan, blocks apart and representing both sides of the debate over the mosque, which has roiled US politics for weeks leading up to the anniversary. The debate pits advocates of religious freedom against critics who say putting an Islamic center so close to ground zero disrespects the dead.
Near City Hall, supporters of the mosque toted signs, including one that read, "The attack on Islam is racism." Opponents carried placards that read, "Stop Obama's Mosque" and "Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque."
There were no arrests in New York, police said. There were scattered scuffles in the streets, including one in which a man ripped up another's poster advocating freedom of religion and the second man struck back with the stick.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke briefly of the 2001 attack: "No other public tragedy has cut our city so deeply. No other place is as filled with our compassion, our love and our solidarity."
Vice President Joe Biden also spoke at the New York ceremony, where 2,752 people were killed when two jetliners flew into the trade center.
Moments of silence were held at 8:46 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 9:59 a.m. and 10:28 a.m. to mark the times the hijacked jetliners hit the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, as well as the times they collapsed.
In Shanksville, Pennsylvania, first lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, spoke at a public event together for the first time since last year's presidential inauguration. At the rural field where the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 who fought back against the hijackers lost their lives, Obama said "a scar in the earth has healed," and Bush said "Americans have no division" on this day.

Florida pastor calls off Koran burning

In New York, the leader of a small Christian congregation in Gainesville, Florida, who had planned to burn copies of the Quran to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary, called off his plans.
Pastor Terry Jones gave a television interview to NBC's "Today" after flying to New York in hopes of meeting with leaders of the mosque and persuading them to move the Islamic center in exchange for his canceling his own plans. No meeting had taken place, he said.
Nonetheless, "We feel that God is telling us to stop," he said. "Not today, not ever. We're not going to go back and do it. It is totally canceled."
Lending credence to Jones' comments, a "Burn a Koran Day" banner outside his Florida church was taken down.
Jones' plan had drawn opposition across the political spectrum and the world. Obama had appealed to him on television, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a personal phone call, not to burn the Islamic holy book. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US mission in Afghanistan, said carrying out the plan would have endangered American troops.
Nevertheless, copies of the Quran were desecrated Saturday in three unrelated instances — one behind the gates of a Christian religious compound in Kansas, one at a public park in front of the White House and a third in front of cameras not far from ground zero.
Afghans, meanwhile, set fire to tires in the streets and shouted "Death to America" for a second day despite Jones' decision to call off the burning. The largest protest, in Logar province near the capital of Kabul, drew a crowd estimated at 10,000.
In New York, the proposed Islamic cultural center, which organizers say will promote interfaith learning, would go in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory clothing outlet store two blocks uptown from ground zero.
Muslim prayer services are normally held at the site, but it was padlocked Friday and closed Saturday, the official end of the holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers on Friday were redirected to a different prayer room 10 blocks away.
Critics said that putting the Islamic Center near ground zero would be a show of disrespect to the victims.