NEW YORK CITY — Lower Manhattan was quiet Saturday morning, resonating only with the solemn sounds of the Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony. But by the afternoon, the streets near Ground Zero had turned into a highly policed battleground, with multiple groups dueling it out through opposing demonstrations.
One of the largest rallies, organized by the New York City Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, was staged near City Hall Park and drew both Muslims and non-Muslims in support of the Cordoba House Islamic center and mosque, often referred to simply as the Ground Zero mosque.
Pastor Terry Jones’s unfulfilled pledge to burn Korans on Sept. 11 and Cordoba House Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s first interview on CNN this week fueled the sentiment behind the protest. Several Muslims at the demonstration told The Daily Caller that while they’re not scared by what they perceive as the increasing anti-Islamic rhetoric in America, their families overseas are expressing concern.
“They only see what’s on the media,” said Huma Ahmad, a 30-year-old Muslim from Albany, N.Y. “They see the pastor in Florida and they’re worried that all America is like that against all Muslims, so we just try to reassure them that there is a part of America that is about peace and tolerance, and that one person doesn’t represent everybody in the U.S.”
The crowd, numbering more than 1,000, frequently erupted in chants of “A people united will never be defeated” and “No justice, no peace.” Participants carried signs, some of which read, “Muslims welcome here” and “Down with anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Some speakers expressed stronger outrage over what they see as racism and intolerance among Tea Party supporters and those who oppose the Cordoba House.
“When they target a religious minority in times of economic crisis, they are walking in Hitler’s footsteps,” said Bill Doares from the International Action Center. “Yes, they hate Muslims. They also hate all people of color. They hate all immigrants.”
Expanding the term Islamophobia to include all immigrants was a common theme at the rally. Lucy Pagoada from the May 1st Worker and Immigrant Rights Coalition said that Muslims and all immigrants are under attack.
“To me, the attack on Muslims is an attack on all immigrants, and we should come together regardless of the color of our skin. We should unite,” Pagoada said. “And we are here today representing what this country really stands for, which is diversity.”
On West Broadway, a group similar in size to the anti-Islamophobia rally gathered to protest the Cordoba House project. The “Rally of Remembrance” was hosted by the Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America. Featured speakers included Atlas Shrugs blogger Pamela Geller, Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, radio host Mike Gallagher, and two video messages from John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Andrew Breitbart, owner of BigGovernment.com.
Vera Loporcaro, a retiree from New York, was at the remembrance rally and said supporters of Cordoba House should back down and move the planned Islamic center elsewhere, just as Pastor Jones backed down and decided not to burn Korans as he threatened to do earlier in the week.
“This is a cemetery, and they shouldn’t put their mosque overlooking it,” Loporcaro said. “It kills people here, because they still hurt from what happened. I do.”
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Roman Shusterman, 29, said he was upset over pleas made by General David Petraeus, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week to not ignite anger in the Muslim world by burning Korans.
“I think that was censorship,” he said. “The pastor was just trying to say, ‘Look we’re not going to let them claim victory.’ But our government basically shut him down.”
Shusterman, an aethist, said he has to be Islamophobic because he feels threatened by what he believes might happen should Islam continue to grow and become the dominant faith in America.
“If our government says to this pastor, who I happen to disagree with on his religion, that he can’t have his freedom of speech because it angers Muslims — and if Islam becomes the predominant religion in America one day — then people like me will be executed,” he said.
Other demonstrations were being held down the street. On Church Street, a group of anti-abortion evangelicals gathered in a fenced-in enclave to pray and promote repentance. Passersby frequently started arguments with the group’s participants or yelled obscenities at them from across the street.
It was also reported that a man from North Carolina ripped pages from a Quran and lit them on fire near the site of the planned Cordoba House project on Park Place.
While police, several of them mounted on horseback, tried keeping all the groups separated, shouting matches between protestors from opposing parties continued to erupt throughout the day. On the corner of Church Street and Park Place, crowds and reporters swarmed around a heated debate between two men, while one woman was sitting on the ground a few feet away being treated by police for a wrist injury.
Supporters of the 9/11 Truth Movement, a group that believes the U.S. government helped orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks, were also handing out fliers around Ground Zero.