Amid furor over NYC mosque, nation pauses to remember victims of Sept. 11

By Verena Dobnik, AP
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Unsettled nation marks 9/11 with rituals of sorrow

NEW YORK — First came the tears, the solemn bugle call and the recital of the names of the dead. Then came the chants, speeches and angry shouts.

It was a Sept. 11 anniversary unlike any other. For the first time, politics and rage were an overt part of New York’s commemoration of the anniversary of the attacks, an occasion marked in the past only by rituals of sorrow.

A Saturday morning ceremony in which relatives of the victims placed flowers in a reflecting pool and read the names of their loved ones gave way to an afternoon of protests and counter-demonstrations over a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.

Some called the rallies a disgraceful intrusion. Indeed, some of the people attending the protests came from far away, and appeared to be drawn only by a deep-rooted dislike of Muslims or passion for liberal causes.

But the throngs included an ample number of 9/11 mourners, too, who joined the anti-mosque crowd of about 1,500 after attending the ground zero memorial ceremony.

“A lot of people say it’s a day of solemn remembrance. But for us, every day is a solemn day,” said Al Santora, who lost his firefighter son, Christopher, in the attacks, and attended the rally with his wife, four daughters and four grandchildren.

For a few hours, the political and cultural furor over whether the proposed Islamic center and mosque belongs so close to the trade center site mostly gave way to the somber anniversary ceremony and pleas from elected officials for religious tolerance.

At the other Sept. 11 attack sites, as at ground zero, elected leaders sought to remind Americans of the acts of heroism that marked a Tuesday in 2001 and the national show of unity that followed.

President Barack Obama, appealing to an unsettled nation from the Pentagon, declared that the United States could not “sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust.”

“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.”

In Shanksville, Pa., 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 lost their lives, Obama said “a scar in the earth has healed,” and Bush said “Americans have no division” on this day.

In New York, the leader of a small Christian congregation in Florida who had planned to burn copies of the Quran to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary called off his plans.

Pastor Terry Jones gave an 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, he said, no copies of the Quran would be burned. “Not today, not ever.”

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, there were isolated reports of Quran desecrations on the anniversary, including two not far from ground zero.

In Afghanistan, two protesters died and four were injured as Afghans protested for a third day Sunday against Jones’ plan, an Afghan police official said, despite Jones’ cancellation of plans.

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.

Near the World Trade Center site, a memorial to the 2,752 who died there played out mostly as it had each year since 2001. Bells were tolled to mark the times of impact of the two hijacked jets and the times the twin towers collapsed.

Assigned to read the names of the fallen, relatives of 9/11 victims calmly made their way through their lists, then struggled, some looking skyward, as they addressed their lost loved ones.

“David, please know that we love you. We miss you desperately,” said Michael Brady, whose brother worked at Merrill Lynch. “We think about you and we pray for you every day.”

As they finished reading names, two relatives of 9/11 victims issued pleas — one to God and one to New York — that the site remain “sacred.”

Family members of Sept. 11 victims also laid flowers in a reflecting pool and wrote individual messages along its edges.

Within hours of the completion of the ceremony, groups of protesters had taken up positions in lower Manhattan, blocks apart and representing both sides of the debate over the mosque, which has suffused the nation’s politics for weeks leading up to the anniversary.

Near City Hall, supporters of the mosque toted signs that read, “The attack on Islam is racism” and “Tea Party bigots funded by corporate $.” Opponents chanted “USA” and “No mosque here” and carried placards that read, “Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque.”

Critics have said that even if organizers have a First Amendment right to build the center where they want, putting it near ground zero would be a show of disrespect.

“It just can’t be. It’s a disgrace,” said Arlene Tipping, of Hauppauge, N.Y., who lost her firefighter son, John, on 9/11. “They’re just trying to take over New York and Manhattan. This really is war.”

Amid it all, ground zero is transforming. Just this week, officials hoisted a 70-foot piece of trade center steel there and vowed to open the Sept. 11 memorial, with two waterfalls marking where the towers stood, by next year. At the northwest corner of the site, 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, now rises 36 stories above ground. It is set to open in 2013 and rise 1,776 feet, taller than the original trade center.

The proposed Islamic cultural center, which organizers say will promote interfaith learning, would go in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory two blocks uptown.

The raging debate over whether it should be moved has stoked anti-Muslim feelings and fear of Islam is possibly greater than it was immediately after Sept. 11, the imam leading an effort to build it said in an interview aired Sunday on ABC.

“How else would you describe the fact that mosques around the country are now being attacked?” Feisal Abdul Rauf said. In recent weeks, Islamic centers in California and Texas were vandalized and the site of a planned mosque in Tennessee was set on fire.

“… We are Americans, too,” the imam said. “We are doctors. We are investment bankers. We are taxi drivers. We are store keepers. We are lawyers. We are — we are part of the fabric of America.”

Prayer services are normally held at the New York City site of the planned center, but it was padlocked Friday and closed Saturday, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Police planned 24-hour patrols until next week.

Elizabeth Meehan, 51, was among about 2,000 rallying to support the mosque. Meehan, who rode a bus to the rally from her home in Saratoga, N.Y., about 180 miles away, said she is an observant Christian and felt it was important for Christians to speak in favor of religious freedom.

“Muslims are fellow Americans,” she said. “They should have the right to worship in America just like anyone else.”

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik and Beth Fouhy in New York, Jennifer C. Yates in Shanksville, Pa., and Erica Werner in Washington.

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