NEW YORK — Rites of remembrance and loss marked the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, familiar in their sorrow but observed for the first time Saturday in a nation torn over the prospect of a mosque near ground zero and the role of Islam in society.
Under a flawless blue sky that called to mind the day itself, there were tears and song, chants, and the waving of hundreds of American flags. Loved ones recited the names of the victims, as they have each year since the attacks. They added personal messages to the lost and placed flowers in a reflecting pool in their honor.
For a few hours Saturday morning, the political and cultural furor over whether a proposed Islamic center and mosque belongs two blocks from the World Trade Center site mostly gave way to the somber anniversary ceremony and pleas from elected officials for religious tolerance.
But this Sept. 11 was unmistakably different from the eight that came before it, and not only because a new World Trade Center is finally ready to rise. As they finished reading names, two relatives of 9/11 victims issued pleas — one to God and one to New York — that the site remain sacred.
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And within hours of the city's memorial service near ground zero, groups of protesters had taken up positions in lower Manhattan, blocks apart and representing both sides of the debate over the mosque, which has suffused the nation's politics for weeks leading up to the anniversary.
Near City Hall, supporters of the mosque toted signs that read, "The attack on Islam is racism" and "Tea Party bigots funded by corporate $." Opponents carried placards that read, "It stops here" and "Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque."
At the other Sept. 11 attack sites, as at ground zero, elected leaders sought to remind Americans of the acts of heroism that marked a Tuesday in 2001 and the national show of unity that followed.
President Obama, appealing to an unsettled nation from the Pentagon, declared that the United States could not "sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust."
"As Americans we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam," the president said. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day — it was al-Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."
In Shanksville, Pa., first lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, spoke at a public event together for the first time since last year's presidential inauguration. At the rural field where the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 lost their lives, Obama said "a scar in the earth has healed," and Bush said "Americans have no division" on this day.
Near the World Trade Center site, a memorial to the 2,752 who died there played out mostly as it had each year since 2001. Bells were tolled to mark the times of impact of the two hijacked jets and the times the twin towers collapsed.
Assigned to read the names of the fallen, relatives of 9/11 victims calmly made their way through their lists, then struggled, some looking skyward, as they addressed their lost loved ones.