Remembrance ceremonies, marred by global tensions over a Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Koran, were to take place Saturday in New York and at the Pentagon on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The rituals honoring the nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001, when Islamist terrorists flew hijacked planes into the US defense headquarters and New York’s World Trade Center towers, unfold almost unchanged each year.
In New York at Ground Zero the names of the 2,752 victims who died there are read out against a background of somber music, with moments of silence marking the times when the two airliners slammed into the Twin Towers — and again when the towers collapsed.
President Barack Obama was to attend the memorial service at the Pentagon, while Vice President Joseph Biden would be in New York.
Obama started marking the anniversary by emphasizing national unity and promising that the United States will be defined by hope rather than fear.
“This is a time of difficulty for our country. And it is often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness — to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common,” Obama said in his weekly radio address.
“But on this day, we are reminded that at our best, we do not give in to this temptation,” the president continued. “We stand with one another…. We do not allow ourselves to be defined by fear, but by the hopes we have for our families, for our nation, and for a brighter future.”
A third memorial service was to take place in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the fourth hijacked airliner crashed into a field.
This year the dignified and simple events are overshadowed by a row over a renegade Florida pastor’s threat to publicly burn hundreds of Korans on Saturday if plans are not dropped for a proposed mosque near Ground Zero.
The pastor, Terry Jones, seemed to have abandoned his Koran-burning plan by Friday after pleas from Obama, the Vatican and several other world leaders warning of a catastrophe for Western-Muslim relations.
However, tensions remained high and Jones’s stunt ensured that the related controversy over the proposed Ground Zero mosque took center stage.
Rival rallies by groups supporting and opposing the disputed mosque project were to take place nearby soon after the official ceremonies at Ground Zero, breaking an unwritten taboo on open politicization of the anniversary.
Police said they would ensure the two groups were kept apart.
The still un-built mosque and Islamic community center was originally proposed by New York’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as a chance to heal post-9/11 wounds just two blocks from Ground Zero.
However opponents — led by rightwing radio DJs and politicians campaigning on patriotic tickets ahead of November 2 congressional midterm elections — accuse the imam of seeking to honor the Islamist terrorists responsible for the attacks.
Tensions at the site started building up late Friday when about 2,000 people rallied near Ground Zero to support a proposed mosque.
Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog, warned Friday of “persecution” against US Muslims and calling on the government to protect their rights.
Jones’s plans on Saturday remained unclear. The obscure pastor, who leads a tiny evangelical congregation of about 50, insisted his truce depended on being at least able to meet with Rauf.
He flew to New York late Friday. But it was unclear whether the imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, planned to meet with Jones. The imam has already denied any deal that would see the planned cultural center and mosque moved further away from the site of the World Trade Center destroyed in the 2001 attacks.
Whatever happens, damage to the US image in the Muslim world may have already occurred.
Anger spilled in Afghanistan on Friday where thousands of people threw stones and demonstrated outside a small NATO military base.
Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier had made a personal call to Jones, saying US troops in Afghanistan would face revenge attacks if the Koran burning went ahead.
There were also protests in Pakistan and Indonesia.
Najib Razak, prime minister of Muslim-majority Malaysia, warned that a “single act of abhorrence” could “ignite the feelings of Muslims throughout the world, the consequences of which I fear would be very, very costly.”