Islamic Center Demonstrators Gather on 9/11

Matt Sky, left, of Manhattan, N.Y., argues in favor of the proposed Islamic center and mosque to be built near Ground Zero against Rose Van Guilder, second from right, of West Sayville, N.Y., and Lance Corey of Ossining, N.Y., right, who oppose the plan, in New York, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010. AP Photo/David Goldman

Updated 7:05 p.m. ET

Tensions flared Saturday over plans to build an Islamic center 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."

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11, 2001, President Barack Obama alluded to the controversy over the mosque - and a Florida pastor's threat, later rescinded, to burn copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.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.

Complete Coverage: 9/11 Nine Years Later

"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 Qaeda, 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.

"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."

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 Islamic center, which has roiled U.S. 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.

At the anniversary ceremony, stifling sobs in front of microphones, some Sept. 11 family members who read names sought to emphasize sentiments on all sides of the Islamic center argument.

Some - like Elizabeth Mathers, whose father, Charles Mathers, worked at Marsh & McLennan at the trade center - stressed that ground zero is hallowed.

"New York, please be mindful this is a sacred site and should be respected as such," she said.

Many sought to embrace unity and a spirit of reaching out, which is what the developers of the Islamic center have said is their goal.

"May we share your courage as we build bridges with other people to prevent this from happening again and to preserve human dignity for all," said Robert Ferris, saluting the dozens of construction workers rebuilding at ground zero who joined families in reading names.

Ferris lost his father, who worked at Aon Corp.

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.

Hundreds of family members later placed roses in a reflecting pool at ground zero in front of a memorial, leaving scrawled remembrances on paper around it.

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.

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.

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 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 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."

More Coverage Marking the 9th Anniversary of 9/11:

Obama: 9/11 Victims Endure in Our Nation's Heart
President Obama Speaks at Pentagon Memorial
Biden Speaks on 9/11 at Ground Zero
Michelle Obama Remembers Flight 93
Laura Bush Speaks at Flight 93 Memorial
Gallery: Sept. 11, 2010
Islam Controversies Cast Shadow Over 9/11 Events
Proposed Islamic Center Divides 9/11 Families
NYC More Ready for Huge Disaster Than on 9/11?
Muslim Scholar: Don't Build Islamic Center
Pastor on Quran Burning: "Not Today, Not Ever"
Obama Remembers Sept. 11, Calls for Unity
Rebuilding Ground Zero
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