WASHINGTON, (AFP) – US President Barack Obama, marking the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks at a time of bitter religious tensions, pledged Saturday the United States will “never” be at war with Islam.
In the wake of tense controversy surrounding a renegade Florida pastor’s threat to publicly burn hundreds of copies of the Koran to mark 9/11 and debate over plans to a Muslim community center and place of worship near Ground Zero, Obama urged his compatriots to be “tolerant.”
“As Americans, we will not and never will be at war with Islam,” he said at a memorial service at the Pentagon to remember the 184 people who were killed after a hijacked plane slammed into the Defense Department headquarters.
“It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was Al-Qaeda, a sorry band of men, which perverts religion.”
The extremists who ordered and carried out the attacks that ultimately brought down the World Trade Center in New York, slammed into the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania “may wish to drive us apart but we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice” the president added.
“The perpetrators of this evil act didn’t simply attack America, they attacked the very idea of America itself.”
Earlier, Pastor Terry Jones said his small Florida church, which has just some 50 followers, had dropped plans to burn Korans indefinitely.
“Not today, not ever,” he told NBC television’s “Today” show after global condemnation and pleas from Obama and other top US officials warning of a backlash against US troops.
However, tensions remained high and Jones’s stunt ensured that the controversy over the proposed cultural center took center stage.
Rival rallies by groups supporting and opposing the disputed project were to take place nearby soon after the official ceremonies at Ground Zero, breaking an unwritten taboo on open politicization of the anniversary.
Police said they would ensure the two groups were kept apart.
The still un-built community center, which organizers say would include dedicated prayer rooms for Muslims – but also for Jews and Christians as well – was originally proposed by New York’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as a chance to heal post-9/11 wounds just two blocks from Ground Zero.
However opponents – led by rightwing radio talkshow hosts and politicians campaigning on patriotic tickets ahead of November 2 congressional midterm elections – accuse the imam of seeking to honor the radical Islamic extremists responsible for the attacks.
Jones’s plans remained unclear. The obscure pastor insisted his truce depended on being at least able to meet with Abdul Rauf.
The pastor traveled to New York for what he has said was a planned meeting with Abdul Rauf, but he told NBC that no such meeting had been set up.