WASHINGTON — Commemorating the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, President Barack Obama Saturday urged Americans to remember that it was al Qaida — not the Muslim faith — that hijacked and crashed four jetliners New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a grassy field near Shanksville, Pa.
Obama's call for tolerance and calm came as anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rise in the U.S. and amid controversies over construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero and a Florida preacher's aborted plan to stage a public burning of Qurans.
"...As Americans we are not - and never will be - at war with Islam," Obama said outside the Pentagon, where 184 people were killed when one of the hijacked jetliners slammed into the building. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day - it was al Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."
Opponents of the proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center demonstrated in New York Saturday, and their critics staged a rival rally. Meanwhile, the pastor of a tiny Florida church definitively called off his plan to burn hundreds of copies of the Quran.
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Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., had come under enormous public pressure from leaders of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths and was warned by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary William Gates that the burning of the Islamic sacred text would lead to assaults on U.S. troops.
Despite the cancellation, anti-American demonstrations continued for a second day in Afghanistan, with around 700 protesters blocking the main road in Pul-i-Alam, the capital of eastern Logar Province, about 40 miles south of Kabul.
Three protesters were slightly injured in a clash with Afghan army troops, who fired warning shots in the air, Atiqullah Ludin, the provincial governor, told McClatchy in a phone interview. Ludin accused Taliban collaborators of organizing the demonstration.
"Our people are uneducated and they (the Taliban) exploit this opportunity," he said.
Smaller protests were reported in several other parts of the country.
The Taliban marked the 9/11 anniversary with a statement charging that the United States "is bent on continuing the occupation of Afghanistan under the same hackneyed pretext and destroying and prosecuting the Afghans by further prolonging a war that could not be won."
"Americans have not achieved any tangible result to remedy the pains of the victims of 9/11 despite the continuation of the war for nine years," said the statement posted on the Taliban's English-language website, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The Florida preacher flew to New York in hopes of meeting with Imam Feisal Rauf, the man behind Islamic center project known as Park 51. No meeting was scheduled Saturday morning. The N.Y. Police Department was closely monitoring his movements.
Still, Jones, speaking on NBC's "Today Show," said "We will definitely not burn the Quran, no...Not today, not ever."
"Even though we have not burned one Quran, we have gotten over 100 death threats," Jones said. "We feel that God is telling us to stop, and we also hope that...maybe that will open the door to maybe be able to talk to the imam."
On an anniversary that most public figures agree should be politics-free, the political implications of the Islamic center and Jones's aborted "International Burn a Quran Day" event were almost inescapable.
Following the World Trade Center ceremonies - in which the names of the 2,749 people who died there were read - rallies against and for the Park51 project were held near the old Burlington Coat Factory building, where the project is to be built.
The debate over the project has highlighted raw feelings in America towards Muslims and Islam. Less than a third of the country feels favorably towards Islam, according to recent surveys.
Muslims are the most negatively viewed faith community in the country, Gallup surveys have found. At the same time, polling reveals that Americans believe that Muslims face the most discrimination of any U.S. religious group.
"This is a time of difficulty for our country," Obama said in his weekly radio address, dedicated to the Sept. 11 anniversary. "And it is often such moments that some try to stoke bitterness - to divide us, based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common. But on this day, we are reminded that at our best, we do not give in to this temptation."
Despite the combustible mix of jangled emotions and swirling controversies, Saturday's events were about paying respects to those who died on Sept. 11 and giving comfort to those who survived and are struggling to move beyond the tragedy and get on with lives.
Moments of silence were observed at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon and near Shanksville, where 40 passengers and crewmembers aboard United Airlines 93 died. They were fighting the hijackers of their flight, which apparently had been headed for Washington, D.C., but instead crashed in a field.
First Lady Michelle Obama and her immediate predecessor, Laura Bush, presided over memorial ceremony at the site of a memorial outside the rural Pennsylvania town. Obama said it's understandable that, despite nine years passing, those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 still experience bad days and good days and that the sense of loss "is still fresh." But she urged relatives of the victims to look forward.
"It is truly my prayer today that in the years ahead, all who come here - and all of you - may be filled with the hope that is written in the Book of Psalms: 'Though you may have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up,'" she said.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Kabul)
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(email: wdouglas(at)mcclatchydc.com )