NEW YORK (AFP) – President Barack Obama told a deeply polarized America that Islam is not the enemy as somber ceremonies marked an unusually tense ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Moving remembrance ceremonies were held to honor the nearly 3,000 people killed when Al-Qaeda extremists slammed airliners into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Pennsylvania.
|New York City Honor Guard carry a flag found at Ground Zero on 9/11 to begin the ceremony commemorating the September 11th 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. AFP Pool|
But with thousands of people marching in dueling protests over a proposed Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero and a Florida pastor triggering demonstrations across the Muslim world with his threat to burn the Koran, this was the most politicized 9/11 anniversary yet.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Obama addressed the politically explosive domestic debate that has enraged Muslims abroad.
"As Americans, we will not and never will be at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was Al-Qaeda, a sorry band of men, which perverts religion," Obama said.
He urged Americans not to succumb to "hatred and prejudice," and vowed: "Just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation."
At Ground Zero, where for the first time reconstruction work is visibly gathering pace, a youth choir opened the ceremony with the national anthem.
Vice President Joseph Biden and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg were among those attending the annual ritual of reading the names of all 2,752 people killed when two hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers.
Bereaved relatives held up portraits of their lost loved ones under a perfectly clear sky as they listened to the litany of names read by often tearful survivors and members of the reconstruction team.
"We come not to mourn but to remember and rebuild," Biden said.
At a third ceremony in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the fourth hijacked plane crashed into a field, First Lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor Laura Bush addressed relatives of the passengers and crew.
"May the memories of those who gave their lives here continue to be a blessing to all of you and an inspiration to all Americans," Obama urged.
Obscure Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who was in New York to continue publicizing his campaign, told NBC television he no longer wanted to desecrate the Muslim holy book -- "not today, not ever" -- after the plan by his tiny congregation of just 50 followers sparked global condemnation and fears of retributions against US troops.
But his stunt overshadowed the day after raising political temperatures in the United States and triggering protests in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.
In New York, thousands turned out to join two protests in favor and against the planned Islamic cultural center which has become the focus for a national debate.
One supporter of the project -- which organizers say would include dedicated prayer rooms for Muslims, Jews and Christians -- said Islam should not be demonized.
"I see Catholic churches around here, Protestant churches, a synagogue, but why shouldn't Muslims be allowed to build too? It's crazy," said bicycle courier Craig Thorpe.
As he spoke, a large man with wrap-around sunglasses stopped and said: "Why should we let them build a mosque? So that we can burn it down. Build the mosque, then fly a plane into it, that's what I say."
Visiting radical Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, who calls Islam fascist, told some 2,000 mosque protesters that it was time to take a stand and "draw a line today on this sacred spot."
"We must never give a free hand to those who want to subjugate us... Draw this line so that New York... will never become New Mecca," added Wilders, who has been under 24-hour protection since 2004, after receiving death threats for his radical beliefs.
Some protestors accuse the Islamic center of aiming to honor the 9/11 terrorists and argue Muslims should not be allowed a significant presence anywhere near Ground Zero.
Others say the feelings of families of those killed on 9/11 are still too raw to accept the project.
Meanwhile, a small group of Christians tore a few pages from a Koran outside the White House Saturday to denounce what they called the "charade of Islam."
In Gainesville, Florida police swat teams separated angry activists gathered outside pastor Jones' church where the Koran burning was to have taken place. A man later pulled out a Koran and tried to burn it but was stopped by police.