Rival groups opposing and supporting a plan to build an Islamic centre two blocks from the World Trade Center site demonstrated peacefully in lower Manhattan on Saturday.

Police were standing by as the two crowds formed a few blocks apart, but the conflicts were limited to occasional loud arguments between demonstrators.

About 1,000 people backed the centre, as several hundred others rallied nearby chanting "No mosque here."

"I'm really fearful of all of the hate that's going on in our country," said Elizabeth Meehan, 51, who backs the centre. "Muslims are fellow Americans; they should have the right to worship in America just like anyone else."

'Never forgive'

Some of those urging that the centre not be built wore hats and T-shirts with the Stars and Stripes. Others carried signs with messages such as "Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque."

My grandparents "didn't fly planes into buildings," said Theresa Angelo, an opponent of the centre. "No other culture does that." She said Muslims should respect the "hallowed ground" where nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11, 2001. "Be a little sensitive."

Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a harsh critic of Islam, talked to the crowd, saying that building the centre would betray those who died in the attacks, according to Dutch media reports.

The plans for the centre have sparked a heated debate, pitting advocates of religious freedom against critics who say putting it so close to the site of the attacks would be disrespectful to the dead.

If it is built, the centre will include a prayer space that could accommodate up to 2,000 people, a child-care area, a theatre and a Sept. 11 memorial.

Burning 'totally cancelled'

Adding to the tensions was Florida minister Terry Jones, who had been vowing to burn copies of the Qur'an to mark the anniversary of 9/11. Jones said Saturday his congregation would not go ahead with the burning.

"We feel that God is telling us to stop," Jones told NBC in New York on Saturday.

Pressed on whether his church would ever burn the Muslim holy book, he said: "Not today, not ever. We're not going to go back and do it. It is totally cancelled."

Jones said he had travelled to the city hoping to meet the organizers of the proposed Islamic centre.

The rising tensions over the Qur'an burning threat and the location of the Islamic centre prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to remind Americans that "we are not — and never will 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."

In the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, two hijacked planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center, igniting fires that destroyed the 110-storey landmarks, while a third crashed into the west wing of the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth plane, which was believed to have been targeting the White House, crashed in a field 120 kilometres southeast of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Twenty-four Canadians were among 2,974 people killed that day.

 

With files from The Associated Press