Annual 9/11 commemoration twisted by protest division

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New York

image captionThe rituals of remembrance have been overshadowed by debates on the location of a Islamic centre and threats to burn the Koran

Saturday dawned with another clear blue September morning, just like the one nine years ago on which the hijacked planes seemed to come out of nowhere, taking the life of Myrna Bethke's brother Bill and nearly 3,000 other people.

Myrna had been dreading this anniversary, fearing that divisive debate over the location of a Muslim community centre near Ground Zero would spill over into the ceremony of remembrance.

The plan by Pastor Terry Jones to burn copies of the Koran at his tiny Florida church on the anniversary only made it feel more fraught.

"Now I'm here it feels just like the other ones," Myrna said with relief.

She can't see why there shouldn't be a Muslim centre containing a prayer space just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

The people behind this project have been working in the area for years, she points out.

But she didn't want to demonstrate in favour of the plan, not today.

Annual ritual

image captionPeople in support of the proposed centre say there is nothing to fear

Charles Wolf who lost his British wife Katherine told me there should be no protests on this day, of all days.

At exactly 0846 (1346 GMT), the minute the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, a moment of silence was observed, followed by a bell.

Houses of worship across the city pealed their bells on cue.

Then came the annual ritual in which the names of the dead are read out - it took place in Zucotti Park, just across from the construction site which is Ground Zero.

The passage of the years has not diminished the power of this ceremony, not lessened the impact on the family members, many of whom wept as they spoke.

Next year, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the memorial to those who died which is being built in the footprints of the twin towers will open, and once again the commemoration will evolve.

'Not scary'

No sooner was the ceremony over than the mood changed subtly.

Protesters both for and against the planned Muslim community centre began to gather nearby.

The solemn morning of remembrance rapidly became just a memory.

image captionOpponents say the planned building is insensitive

The police separated the rival rallies and kept the press on a tight leash.

"Islam has been in Manhattan for 400 years," read one placard at the demonstration in support of the centre.

"This is what a Muslim Feminist looks like," said the sign carried by 26-year-old Jessica Roberts.

"I am showing people that I'm not scary," said Jessica, who worships inside the old Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place, site of the proposed community centre and prayer space.

"It's going to have a swimming pool, it's hardly going to be a breeding ground for Islamic extremists, and anyway it is my constitutional right as an American to worship there."


A few blocks away demonstrators chanted "no mosque, no mosque", and told cameramen to go away because they were from the mainstream media.

"You're communists!" shouted one man.

A man who gave his name as Dennis, a fireman, said "There shouldn't be a victory mosque here in the place where so many were killed in the name of Islam."

"It's like shouting fire in a crowded room," said Dennis.

A man held up a painting of a wounded arm with a salt cellar above, representing salt being rubbed into the wound of 9/11.

The mood of both demonstrations was verbally robust, but there was no violence.

Once both had finished there was an air of anti climax, of Lower Manhattan returning to normal for another twelve months.

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