The September 11 anniversary is usually a day of quiet reflection. But this year the furore over plans for a mosque near Ground Zero led to a day of noise and recrimination
New York’s commemoration of the Sept 11 2001 terror attacks moved from the sombre to the strident as thousands of duelling protestors rallied on either side of the site of a proposed Islamic centre.
The mood rapidly turned from reflection to indignation in the streets around Ground Zero as anti-mosque demonstrators denounced plans for the 13-storey Islamic project on what they view as “hallowed ground”.
A large crowd, including several relatives of 9/11 victims clutching photographs of their loved ones, waved American flags and chanted “no mosque here” and “USA USA”.
In a counter-protest in support of the plans for the Islamic centre, protestors slammed the project’s foes as “bigots” and “racists”.
The rival rallies concluded a Sept 11th like none before as the controversy about the Islamic centre and a Florida pastor’s on-off threat to burn Korans dominated what has traditionally been a day of tributes and tears.
The transformation in tone prompted Archbishop Timothy Dolan, leader of New York’s Roman Catholics, to issue a statement expressing his concerns. “This day must remain a time for promoting peace and mutual respect,” he said.
The morning began with the familiar but moving ritual of reading the names of the 2,752 killed at the World Trade Centre, broken by four moments of silence – one each to mark the times when the two hijacked jets struck and then the two towers collapsed.
There were also ceremonies at the other two sites where commandeered planes claimed victims – at the Pentagon, attended by President Barack Obama, and a Pennsylvania field, attended by First Lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor Laura Bush.
But the atmosphere changed as the day progressed. To loud cheers at the anti-mosque rally, Geert Wilders, the firebrand Dutch politician and outspoken critic of Islam, declared: “We will draw a line here today on this sacred ground. We must not give a free hand to those who want to subjugate us.”
In the crowd was Eileen Tallon, 67, whose son Sean, a firefighter, died when the Twin Towers collapsed. She rejected criticism that it was inappropriate to stage such a protest on the anniversary of 9/11.
“They want to build a victory mosque on our cemetery so this is the perfect day to come out to protest,” she said. “Muslims killed my only son. They are free to worship anywhere else but they should not be building a mosque here. It is insensitive and insulting.”
Others turned their ire and fire on their president, who has defended the right of Muslims to build the community centre. “This is Obama’s mosque,” said retired prison guard John Cacciola. “He is a Muslim, he is the ant-Christ.”
A lone protestor took up the stunt abandoned by the Florida pastor when he burned a few pages of the Koran in front of press photographers.
“Americans should be free to express themselves as they see fit,” he said before being bundled away by police officers. He declined to give his name, saying “my actions are more important than my name”.
The rival rally was organised by left-wing, antiwar and pro-Palestinian groups. Dozens of people waved signs reading, “Christians for religious freedom in America,” and called for unity and freedom. Other placards were blunter, reading: “Your bigotry and hatred is a national security risk” or “the attack on Islam is racism”.
Elizabeth Meehan, 51, took a bus from her home in Saratoga in upstate New York to show support for the centre on the principle 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.”
The site of the proposed Islamic cultural centre in an abandoned coat store was closed off behind police lines. Muslim prayer services are already held there, but not this weekend as worshippers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan were directed to another prayer room in Lower Manhattan.
By dusk, the demonstrators were leaving the scene after an unprecedented Sept 11. And as darkness fell, two powerful light beams were directed into the clear night sky to illuminate the space where the Twin Towers once dominated the New York skyline.