Crowds face off at Ground Zero

By Annie Gowen, Tara Bahrampour and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 7:03 PM

NEW YORK - A day that began with quiet rituals of mourning--church bells and long moments of silence--ended with noisy squabbling Saturday, as supporters and opponents of a proposed Islamic cultural center faced off in lower Manhattan.

The ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which killed more than 2,700 people and altered this swaggering city's skyline, began like the rest. There was a ceremony near Ground Zero, at which family members and workers helping build a 9/11 memorial took turns reading the names of the city's dead.

But, by mid-afternoon, the names had been read, and the action shifted a few blocks to the north. There, the day's solemn remembrances were replaced by two suspicious camps chanting slogans.

At 3 p.m., several hundred protestors had gathered into two city blocks near the proposed Park 51 Islamic Center, waving American flags and chanting "U.S.A. U.S.A." and "No Mosque." The "Rally of Remembrance" event featured speeches from conservative figures such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton--who spoke via video--and keynote speaker Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has attacked Islam.

"American, New York and sharia are incompatible in New York," Wilders said, mentioning sharia, or Islamic religious law. "New York stands for openness and tolerance. Suppose there was a place and it only allowed people of one persuasion within its walls. It would not be New York. It would be Mecca."

Another speaker exhorted the Islamic Center's Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to abandon plans to build the center. "Imam Rauf, tear up those plans!"

Around the same time, a crowd of about 300 supporters of the project marched to the building, about two blocks away from the former World Trade Center site. Chanting "Unity Now," the marchers -- a coalition of many liberal and civil rights groups -- held signs that said "U.S. Tolerates All Religions" and "No to Racism and Anti-Muslim Bigotry."

Larry Holmes, 57, a rally organizer and New York City resident, said that the marchers wanted to voice their concern about what he called the rise in Islamophobia in this country.

"This is part of a larger effort to counter any effort to scapegoat groups of Americans, whether they be Muslims or immigrants in Arizona," he said.

A large group from Albany's Muslim community came on a bus from the state capital, including Abdul Mohammad, a Yemeni American who is 40 and, he said, disabled.

"I came because we have a right to build a mosque where we want," he said. "This Islamic Center is peaceful -- and meant for the people, everyone in the community."

As the afternoon sun beat down, tempers heated up. Operation Save America's allotted time to use amplifiers began, and thus the voice of Rusty Lee Thomas, a bald man in a black suit and black cowboy boots who is the group's assistant director, reverberated between the canyon of buildings.

"This mosque is a dagger in the heart of our nation," he cried. Someone blew on a shofar, a several-feet-long curled horn with a loud wail, which a group member said had been brought from Israel.

A few feet away, other opponents of the proposed Islamic center, or of Islam in general, invited cameramen to come closer as they expressed their views.

Jerry Hirsch, a 60-year old Manhattan accountant wearing a "Proud American" T-shirt and holding a U.S. flag, described the site of the proposed center as a victory for America's enemies.

"This building, in their view, was the battleground, they're claiming ownership of that now. By building it here it indicated their supremacy," Hisch said. "This demonstrates their victory over the rubble of 9-11."

Much earlier in the day--long before the throngs of politicians and protestors descended on Lower Manhattan--New Yorker Natasha Hardial had her own quiet moment across the street from Ground Zero.

Hardial, 33, a health-care specialist, works in the neighborhood and was there the day the towers fell. She comes every year. She snapped a photo of the site and placed a bouquet of daisies nearby. With work on the memorial underway and expected to be done next year, the World Trade Center site looms with cranes and the eerie sound of steel hammering - evoking the work that went on in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's still not the same. It's never going to be the same," Hardial said through tears. Saturday night, two twin beams of light will pierce the evening sky to memorialize the nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

Luminaries such as Vice President Biden and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gathered at the site Saturday morning for what has become the traditional memorial service - bells pealing at the moments the planes hit the two skyscrapers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

As the family members of the victims and construction workers solemnly read out the names of the victims, one by one, throughout the morning, a crowd gathered at Harry B. Helmsley Square nearby to listen. Some were tourists, some gawkers. Some listened solemnly, teary eyed. The carillon bells at nearby Trinity Church chimed.

Stephen Van Natten, 42, a district attorney from Allentown, Pa., clutched his fiancee Shelley Magan, 43, as she wiped away tears.

Sept. 11 is Magan's birthday, which she takes as a serious responsibility, celebrating other years at firehouses or with victims' families. This year they drove up to Ground Zero.

"This day is not just about celebrating life. We have a responsibility to remember these terrible tragedies and I chose to do that," Magan, a school principal, said.

At Helmsley Square, a Peruvian immigrant named Ercilia U. Mora, a medical analyst from New York, held up a sign that said "Muslims - Have their own agenda -- don't trust them!" She and a compatriot quickly got into a shouting match with a passerby, Carol Wong.

Wong defended the Muslim group's right to build the center and said, "God is the God of love."

Mora's compatriot said to Wong, heatedly, "They've got no business being down there. It's wrong to put the mosque down there. This is a sacred place!"

A police officer then came by and broke up the shouting match.

Mora later said she was against building the mosque as well. "Build it somewhere else," She said. "This is a sacred place."

Seventy-one percent of Americans oppose the idea of a mosque being built so close to Ground Zero, according to a recent CBS poll.

Terry Jones, the controversial Gainesville Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Koran, is in New York. But he was not spotted any the afternoon's anti-mosque rallies.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told CNN Saturday morning that police met Jones at the airport Friday night when he arrived and would be keeping a close watch on him throughout the day. The pastor told NBC Saturday he would not be burning any Korans.

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