Commemorations for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are under way in the US amid continued tensions over plans for an Islamic centre near Ground Zero and a threat to burn the Qur’an.
The main event is in New York, where relatives are reading out the names of the 2,749 people who died in the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
Houses of worship across the city tolled their bells at 8.46am (13.46 GMT), the moment the first hijacked plane struck the north tower in 2001.
Barack and Michelle Obama attended separate services in Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, for the victims of hijacked planes that hit the Pentagon and a rural field nine years ago to the day.
Speaking at the memorial service, the president said the US was not at war with Islam.
“It was not a religion that attacked us that September day, it was al-Qaida – a sorry band of men that perverts religion,” he said.
In his Saturday radio address broadcast earlier, Obama alluded to the tensions over the proposed mosque and Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero, which have been inflamed by the Qur’an burning stunt.
“This is a time of difficulty for our country,” he said. “And it is often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common.
“We do not allow ourselves to be defined by fear, but by the hopes we have for our families, for our nation, and for a brighter future.”
The pastor behind the threat to burn hundreds of Qur’ans in Florida said the event had been cancelled permanently.
“We will definitely not burn the Qur’an, no,” Terry Jones, head of a congregation of about 50 at the Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, told NBC’s Today show.
When pressed about whether his planned demonstration might happen at a later date, he said: “Not today, not ever.”
Jones said no meeting had been set up with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the New York imam behind the plans for the Islamic centre.
Jones said his church’s goal was “to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical” and claimed: “We have definitely accomplished that mission.”
But his stunt still threatens to overshadow the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After the official commemorative services there will be anniversary rallies in New York for and against the centre, with more than 1,000 protesters on both sides expected to converge at the site, two blocks north of ground zero.
The heated debate, pitting advocates of religious freedom against critics who say the plan is disrespectful to the dead, has led the president to declare: “We are not at war against Islam.”
The rallies have embroiled victims’ family members in a feud over whether to play politics on the anniversary.
Nancy Nee, whose firefighter brother was killed at the World Trade Centre, has said she does not plan to join other family members at an anti-mosque rally after the anniversary ceremony but is opposed to the development.
“I just wanted to be as at peace with everything that’s going on as I possibly can,” Nee said.
She said her brother George Cain’s death “is still very raw. … and I just don’t have it in me to be protesting and arguing, with anger in my heart and in my head”.
Jim Riches, whose son Jimmy, also a firefighter, did in the attack, said he would join the protest.
“My son can’t speak any more. He’s been murdered by Muslims. I intend to voice my opinion against the location of this mosque,” Riches said. “If someone wants to go home, that’s their right. I have the right to go there.”
But Stephanie Parker, whose father, Philip L Parker, died in the attacks, said: “I think the anniversary is being overshadowed.”
Parker was among 2,000 people who held a vigil on Friday night in support of the Islamic centre. She said this was the first time she had publicly commemorated the attacks. “This year I feel like I should use my voice and my position” as a victim’s relative to speak up for tolerance, she said.