As the city prepares to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, tensions remain high near the site of a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque -- prompting calls for peace and unity by some of the city and nation's biggest leaders.
More than 2,000 people were on hand Friday night for a candlelight vigil to show their support for the controversial project, also known as Park51.
T-shirts were sold to help cover the costs of setting up the event, which was organized by New York Neighbors for American Values -- a coalition of more than 100 civic and religious organizations.
"I love this shirt and I am not very religious. To me this says I love New York because it is diverse, because we have the whole world in New York and we treat everybody equally," said vigil organizer Peter Hogness.
Participants say they're troubled over the surge of anti-Islamic sentiment around the country, and wanted to stand up for freedom in a clear and respectful way.
"I am an American Muslim. I have been here for a long time and I have children and grandchildren and I want to forward peace and harmony. And help America stand for the values that make us special," said one participant.
"We stand together for peace, for justice, for equality, for harmony, for tolerance, for understanding, and for unity and that is what America is all about," said City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.
The vigil came just hours after President Barack Obama addressed the controversy during a press conference at the White House.
While speaking to reporters, Obama said he understood the concerns of opponents of the Park51 Islamic community center, which would be two blocks from the World Trade Center site, but that there is no reason to prevent the building of a mosque in the United States.
"This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal; that they have certain inalienable rights. One of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely," said the president. "And what that means, is that if you could build a church on a site, if you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site."
Obama said that Americans should not treat Islam differently from other religions, and that U.S. Muslim soldiers are currently fighting in Afghanistan.
"We are not at war against Islam. We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts," said the president.
Meanwhile, the Florida pastor who was planning to burn copies of the Koran to mark the anniversary is now in the city -- in hopes of meeting with the Imam of the proposed center, the Associated Press is reporting.
According to the AP, Terry Jones flew into New York just after 10 p.m. Friday.
Jones claims he was lied to when he was told by a Florida imam that there was an agreement to move the project and is hopeful he will meet with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. However, Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal and Rauf both deny they have ever spoken to Jones and say a meeting is not planned. They also maintain that they have no plans to move the center.
Imam Rauf says he has no plans to meet with Jones, but is willing to see anyone who is
"seriously committed to pursuing peace."
Jones has not clarified whether he plans to hold the protest at a later date. His threat has already sparked protests in the streets of Afghanistan.
Obama also said Friday that a high-profile burning of Korans in the United States would incite overseas Muslims to harm U.S. troops.
Meanwhile, one of the oldest Christian institutions in the United States joined the conversation about the Islamic community center by calling for civility and reconciliation.
Leaders of the Collegiate Churches of New York, which was established in 1628, said that much of the anger and frustration in the debate stems from misunderstanding and a drive to push personal agendas.
The group took out a full-page ad in Friday's New York Times calling for a respectful dialogue between all the religious communities concerned with the project.
"So that we can work together towards a peaceful resolution to these issues and so we can tone down the volume in terms of the debate," said the Reverend Robert Chase of the Collegiate Churches. "And then we can come to understand and know one another as individual human beings, who are faithful and creative, productive citizens, whether we be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, non-believer, Hindu, Buddhists, whatever."
The minsters said no successful resolution is possible without communication and mutual trust between all the parties involved.
Here in the city, the head of the New York Archdiocese also stressed peace, echoing President Obama's calls for religious tolerance.
In a statement issued Friday, Archbishop Timothy Dolan called the anniversary a holy day, saying, in part, "We must never allow September 11th to become a time for protest and division. Instead, this day must remain a time for promoting peace and mutual respect."
As Lower Manhattan holds memorial services on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, both supporters and protestors of the proposed mosque intend to hold demonstrations nearby.
The New York City Police Department will have extra officers in Lower Manhattan to make sure the protestors do not clash.
Other groups say they are not planning to protest Saturday, saying the anniversary is a time for mourning and reflection.
Locals by the World Trade Center also told NY1 that they did not feel rallies should be held during the September 11th memorial services.
"I don't think it's necessarily inappropriate. Probably not the best thing to do," said a New Yorker. "Inappropriate from a legal perspective, no. From a sentimental perspective, probably yes."
"I don't think they should, because the day should be very low key and that's it," said another. "It should be for the families, not about this."
A Nation Remembers 9/11
Preparations and protests are underway as the city and the nation prepare to mark nine years since the September 11th attacks.
The names of the victims who died will be read Saturday morning in Downtown Manhattan. Bells will also be tolled at the times that the airplanes hit and when the towers fell.
Vice President Joe Biden is set to attend the ceremony by the World Trade Center site.
Obama is scheduled to attend a memorial ceremony at the Pentagon.
At the White House Friday, he reminded Americans that tomorrow is a national day of service and remembrance.
"I hope each of us finds a way to serve our fellow citizens. Not only to reaffirm our deepest values as Americans, but to rekindle that spirit of unity and common purpose that we felt in the days that followed that September morning," said the president.
First Lady Michelle Obama will join former First Lady Laura Bush in Pennsylvania for a ceremony at Shanksville, Pa., the future site of the United Flight 93 memorial.
Street Closures, Parking Changes During Saturday's Events
Due to the memorial ceremonies being held near the World Trade Center site on Saturday in remembrance of the September 11th terrorist attacks, there will be many street closures and changes to parking regulations in effect. See the complete list.