NEW YORK – Rites of remembrance and loss marked the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, familiar in their sorrow but observed for the first time Saturday in a nation torn over the prospect of a mosque near ground zero and the role of Islam in society.
Under a flawless blue sky that called to mind the day itself, there were tears and song, chants and the waving of hundreds of American flags. Loved ones recited the names of the victims, as they have each year since the attacks. They looked up to add personal messages to the lost and down to place flowers in a reflecting pool in their honor.
For a few hours Saturday morning, the political and cultural furor over whether a proposed Islamic center and mosque belongs two blocks from the World Trade Center site mostly gave way to the somber anniversary ceremony and pleas from elected officials for religious tolerance.
But this Sept. 11 was unmistakably different from the eight that came before it, and not only because a new World Trade Center is finally ready to rise. 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.”
And within hours of the city’s memorial service near ground zero, 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 carried placards that read, “It stops here” and “Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque.”
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 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 the burning. 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.”
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.
Afghans, meanwhile, set fire to tires in the streets and shouted “Death to America” for a second day despite Jones’ decision to call off his plans. The largest drew a crowd estimated at 10,000.
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 a 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.”
Sean Holohan, whose brother was killed, called out to the 343 firefighters who died: “All of you proved that day to the world that we are still one indivisible nation under God.”
Family members of Sept. 11 victims also laid flowers in a reflecting pool and wrote individual messages along its edges.
Around the spot where they paid tribute, ground zero is transforming itself. 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 be 1,776 feet tall, 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 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. Police planned 24-hour patrols until next week. Worshippers on Friday were redirected to a different prayer room 10 blocks away.
On Saturday, about 1,500 opponents of the mosque chanted “USA” and “No mosque here.” 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.
“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, 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.
“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.”