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Tensions flare in NYC after 9/11 ceremonies

After 9/11 ceremonies, rival demonstrations take place over the proposal for an Islamic center near New York City's ground zero.
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Tensions flared Saturday over plans to build a mosque near ground zero as rival demonstrations took place after family members of Sept. 11 victims recited loved one's names through tears at a somber ceremony marking the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S.

After the 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."

Center supporters carried signs with such slogans as "The attack on Islam is racism" and "Tea Party Bigots."

Speaking at the Pentagon, where 184 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, President Barack Obama alluded to the controversy over the mosque — and a Florida pastor's threat, later rescinded, to burn copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.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 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. The names of all the people killed at the World Trade Center site were read aloud at a three-hour ceremony Saturday on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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."

Moments of silence were held at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., the times hijacked jetliners hit the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.

"Let today never, ever be a national holiday. Let it not be a celebration," said Karen Carroll, who lost her brother, firefighter Thomas Kuveikis. "It's a day to be somber; it's a day to reflect on all those thousands of people that died for us in the United States."

But the rallies in New York embroiled victims' family members in a feud over whether to play politics.

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."

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.

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 U.S. 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.

"Stop bending down to them. Stop placating them. No special treatment," said Alice Lemos, 58, speaking of Muslims and holding a small American flag on a stick. "This isn't about religion. This is about rubbing our faces in their victory over us."

Elizabeth Meehan, 51, rode a bus from her home in Saratoga, New York, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) away, to show support for the mosque. She said that as an observant Christian it was important to speak in favor of religious freedom.

"I'm really fearful of all of the hate that's going on in our country. People in one brand of Christianity are coming out against other faiths, and I find that so sad," she said. "Muslims are fellow Americans, they should have the right to worship in America just like anyone else."