NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States marked the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on Saturday with commemorative ceremonies and although a pastor had canceled plans for a high-profile protest burning of the Koran, the Muslim holy book was abused in at least three separate incidents.
Hundreds of people in favor and against the building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the toppled World Trade Center gathered in New York — hours after ceremonies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania to mark the attacks nine years ago that killed nearly 3,000 people. The protests were peaceful.
But there were at least two incidents of abuse of the Koran in Lower Manhattan. Separately, two evangelical preachers not affiliated with any mainstream church burned two copies of the Koran in Tennessee.
Florida preacher Terry Jones had outraged Muslims around the world with his plans to burn copies of the Koran on Saturday. Jones, head of a tiny and obscure church in Gainesville, canceled his plans on Thursday.
The plan had triggered outbreaks of violence in Afghanistan in which one protester was shot dead. Thousands of Afghans demonstrated in the northeast of the country for a second day on Saturday.
President Barack Obama and U.S. officials had warned that the burning of the Koran could harm America’s image abroad, endanger lives and act as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda. Muslims view the Koran as the literal word of God, and actual or alleged desecration of the holy book has often sparked protests in the Muslim world
The proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, site of the toppled World Trade Center, has sparked controversy for weeks, with promoters saying it will help bring the city’s disparate communities closer together but opponents saying it is insensitive to those who died in the September 11 attacks.
One man protesting against the center tore pages from the Koran, and set them alight. In another incident, a man tore pages from a copy of the Koran and made vulgar gestures with it. Onlookers were shocked at the sight.
Near Nashville, Tennessee, evangelical Pastor Bob Old and another preacher used lighter fluid and a lighter to burn at least two copies of the Koran in his yard. Old called Islam “a false religion.”
There were no reports of any arrests.
Obama, who has sought to improve ties with the Muslim world frayed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the attacks, stressed religious tolerance in remarks at a memorial service in Washington. He said those who attacked the United States in 2001 tried to deprive Americans of their ideals.
“They may seek to spark conflict between different faiths, but as Americans we are not and will never be at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day, it was al Qaeda — a sorry band of men which perverts religion,” he said.
As Obama spoke at the Pentagon, family and friends of those who died in the attacks in New York placed flowers in a pool at the site. The names of the 2,752 World Trade Center victims were read out loud in a somber ceremony.
Jones, who had arrived in New York from Florida on Friday night, said he came with the hope of meeting Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is involved in the proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.
But the 58-year-old preacher, who says he received 100 death threats, said there would not be any meeting.
Jones’ plans clearly inspired at least one of the copycat incidents.
“I saw that guy from Florida chicken out and what’s the old saying? If you want something done, do it yourself,” said an unidentified middle-age man, who said he drove from
Pennsylvania to show New Yorkers what to do with the Koran, and who made vulgar gestures with a copy of the book.
Back in Florida, convenience store clerk Paula Smith expressed relief that Jones had called off the event.
“We’ve been put in the spotlight because of one man with a church of a few dozen people,” she said. “I hope it hasn’t drawn too much attention away from 9/11, the victims and what happened that day.”
More violence erupted in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan province on Saturday, where a day earlier a protester was killed outside a German-run NATO base, provincial police chief Aqa Noor Kentuz said.
Additional reporting by Washington Newsroom, Kevin Gray in Gainesville, Florida; Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; Paul Carrel in Cologne; writing by Mark Egan and Patricia Reaney; editing by Frances Kerry