The silent dignity of solemn remembrance drowns out the voices of the crackpots

For many of the bereaved, this year's anniversary of the attacks on the twin towers was the hardest, marred as it was by hatred. David Usborne in New York and James Burton in London report
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The Independent US

For the kin of those who perished and other witnesses of evil on that fine blue day in 2001, the anniversaries are never adequate. Yesterday, though, was the hardest. Solemn remembrance had been fouled by bating between world religions, stoked by a crackpot pastor with a ministry of flames and hatred.

A pastor who can't leave well alone. Minutes before the ceremonies of commemoration – in Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane went down – Terry Jones strode into a New York TV studio to state that he would not be burning any Korans, ever.

There was no applause. He had flown in from his horse-barn church with its horse-trailer sign – "International Burn a Koran Day" – in Gainesville, Florida, purportedly to help to resolve the other dispute polluting 9/11 day: the plans for an Islamic centre and mosque three blocks from Ground Zero. This was effrontery. A benign influence, he is not. He has 50 followers, or maybe less. No dog-collar, but a gun.

Still yesterday, as President Barack Obama evoked America's best values of tolerance and respect to mourners at the Pentagon, the poison leaked by the pastor continued to corrode our better side. For a second day, thousands came out across Afghanistan, including Kabul. There were reports of crowds chanting "Death to America" and burnings of the US flag. In Manhattan, duelling rallies for and against the ground zero mosque pitted tolerance against bigotry, ignorance against understanding.

That the burning had been abandoned brought some expressions of relief, from quarters as far apart as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican to the sermon of a Detroit imam at a service for Muslims called to celebrate interfaith tolerance. Jones was "going back to the voice of reason and not submitting to the feelings of anger and bigotry," Imam Hassan al-Qazwini said.

The tensions created by the mosque row and by the delusions of Jones continued to test the uniting powers of America's first black president. Polls show a fifth of Americans continue to believe he is a Muslim. He urged mutual tolerance on Friday at a press conference and again in his weekly radio address yesterday. And again at the Pentagon, where honouring the dead would normally have been his focus.

The crew who hijacked those jets meant to deprive America of its ideals, Mr Obama said. "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-Qa'ida – a sorry band of men that perverts religion."

As always, the city hushed for two moments of silence to mark the times of impact of the two planes on the twin towers. And it bowed its collective head as the names of the 2,752 World Trade Center victims were read out loud in alphabetical order.

"Once again we meet to commemorate the day we have come to call 9/11," Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, said. "No other public tragedy has cut our city so deeply."

If numbers matter, 2,000 gathered at the rally to voice support for the mosque and the principle that in American any faith can worship anywhere. The anti-mosque knot that assembled a little later numbered a few hundred fewer, but their placards were angrier: "Sharia" one read, but written in dripping blood red, a black line drawn through it. An unidentified man tore pages from a Koran – and burnt them.

The imam behind the proposed Islam centre – to be called Park51 and based inside a building that once housed a discount-overcoat department store which was damaged by wheels torn from one of the doomed 9/11 planes – continued to deny the claims made by Mr Jones that the two of them would be meeting later yesterday to decide on a compromise to move his centre to a different location.

The tug-of-war over the proposed centre has divided a country. But, more poignantly, it has divided the community of relatives of the nearly 3,000 who died nine years ago. A few have plunged into supporting or excoriating the Ground Zero mosque plans. Others just watch with dismay.

"The day should be reserved for those who lost loved ones, so they can remember them," Ray Winuk, who lost his younger brother in the attack, told a reporter. "It saddens me that there's so much controversy and divisiveness right now related to 9/11. Will it be the worst 9/11 since 2001? We won't know until 9/12. It's always a difficult day."

In another reminder of the change in the US since the morning the planes struck, the commission that originally investigated the attacks issued a sobering 40-page follow-up report. It made what it described as a wake-up call about the danger of home-grown, radicalised Muslims with potential terrorist intent inside America's borders. "The threat that the US is facing is different than it was nine years ago," the report by the Bipartisan Policy Center said. "The US is arguably now little different from Europe in terms of having a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam."

Even as Pastor Jones vowed to abandon his Koran-burning plans, other extremists said they would fill his shoes with their own Koran-torching stunts. Based in spots such as Springfield, Tennessee, and Topeka, Kansas, they are unlikely to win the same media attention that was visited on Jones. The 9/11 anniversary, after all, is almost past – until the next one when, most Americans surely wish, the inter-faith tensions of this year will have subsided.

In London, 20 protesters from the radical group Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) arrived outside the US Embassy in London to burn an American flag. The demonstrators, mostly male, carried the black flag of the Islamic Khilafah and placards bearing slogans such as "May Allah burn those who burn the Koran". Shortly afterwards, two youths from the English Defence League (EDL) appeared. One threw a can of what appeared to be Carlsberg at the MAC protesters and was bundled off by the police. About 15 minutes later, more EDL supporters arrived and were ushered to the far side of the embassy by police, where they chanted "scum" and swore at their rival protesters 25 metres away.

After a short speech by an MAC spokesman, Abu Rayah, explaining that while they were "not against one hillbilly trying to burn the Koran, we are against the constitution that attacks Muslims every day", the US flag was set alight. Some 50 protesters chanted: "Democracy, you will burn."

At the far end of the square, a very different spectacle was taking place. Under a wooden pavilion bearing the inscription "Peace is the price we pay for love", in the British Memorial Garden grown after 9/11, a steady stream of people came to lay flowers and wreaths. Some were from the families of the 67 British people killed nine years ago. Others, such as John Watts, came to pay respects. Now 60, he lost his wife shortly after the towers fell: 11 September 2001 was his last wedding anniversary. His memories of it, like those of so many with no direct connection to the attack, are overwhelmed by what happened that day.

The preachers of hate

In the wings: Other would-be burners of the Koran

Westboro Baptist Church

Based in Topeka, Kansas, the church is headed by former civil-rights veteran Pastor Fred Phelps and his lawyer daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper. WBC's congregation was numbered at 71 members in 2007 – mostly consisting of Phelps's large family. In 2008, the congregation burned a Koran in plain view on a Washington DC street. Their Baptist church first came under the spotlight in 1998, when CNN featured them for picketing the funeral of a homosexual man, and for later picketing the funeral of civil-rights pioneer Coretta Scott King. Their current websites appear to align with their views, with names such as "God Hates The World", "God Hates India", and "Priests Rape Boys".

Disciples of Christ

Located in Springfield, Tennessee, the "Disciples of Christ" ministry is headed by the Reverend Bob Old and has no congregation members. Old was formerly a Baptist minister at various Tennessee Baptist churches. He compares his planned latest Koran stunt to the Old Testament's account of Moses burning a golden calf that the Israelites were worshipping. His ministry's fundamental beliefs are that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that freedom of religion does not apply to non-Christians. On the issue of the Koran burning, Old insisted: "This will show how strong my convictions are. I believe other religions are a threat to my beliefs."

Duncan Philip

Philip, of Carpenter, Wyoming, has frequently acted as a lone protester opposing the proposed Islamic centre at Ground Zero in New York. He is the founder of the Wyoming Tyranny Response Team, which totals fewer than 10 members and considers itself "a street protest organisation enforcing the Bill of Rights by any means necessary". While he has no official link with the United Universalist church, which is located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he has commonly led members of their congregation in anti-Islamic protests on the steps of Wyoming's State Capitol building. Last year he attempted to burn the Koran, but was halted by state laws – instead, on numerous occasions, Philip has publicly ripped up a copy.