A series of solemn ceremonies at Ground Zero in New York, the Pentagon and a crash site in Pennsylvania got underway Saturday marking an unusually tense ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In sunny New York, Vice President Joseph Biden and 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.
The ceremony started with the national anthem sung by a youth choir at Ground Zero where reconstruction work has recently for the first time begun to gather pace. Bereaved relatives held up portraits of their lost loved ones under a perfectly clear sky.
President Barack Obama was to attend a ceremony at the Pentagon outside Washington, which was also hit by a hijacked airliner in the attack by Islamist militants on September 11, 2001.
A third ceremony was taking place in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane seized by the attackers crashed in a field, bringing the total killed to almost 3,000.
Usually a day of carefully choreographed respect, this year’s 9/11 anniversary has been marred by polarizing debates over a planned mosque near Ground Zero and a Florida pastor’s threat to publicly burn the Koran.
The pastor arrived in New York late Friday to continue publicizing his campaign, which has already sparked protests across the Muslim world, while rival street rallies were planned near the controversial mosque project site.
Obama, who has forcefully defended the mosque plan, pleaded in his weekly radio address for unity.
“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.
The firebrand pastor Terry Jones meanwhile Saturday said his church will never burn the Koran, as previously threatened, telling NBC “Today” show: “Not today, not ever.”
Demonstrators supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero said late Friday that Muslims across the United States were being demonized over the nearly decade-old 9/11 attacks.
“We stand together to rebuff the stereotypes,” Susan Lerner, New York director of the rights group Common Cause, told the crowd. “We reject the idea that any neighborhood in our great city is off limits to any particular group.”
Anti-mosque demonstrators, led by ultra-conservative groups, predicted a large protest later Saturday.
Some protestors accuse the Islamic center of aiming to honor the 9/11 terrorists and argue that Muslims should not be allowed a significant presence anywhere near Ground Zero.
Others say that the feelings of families of those killed on 9/11 are still too raw to accept the project.
This video is from the White House, published Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010.