Hundreds of New Yorkers gathered at the corner of Church Street and Park Place Friday night to join together in support of religious freedom, diversity, equality, and the rights of Muslims to build the hotly contested community center near Ground Zero.
As Muslims marked the end of their holy month of Ramadan and the rest of the nation prepared to observe the ninth anniversary of the infamous 9/11 terror attacks, the hundreds gathered for Friday's vigil were encouraged to do more than to simply support the proposed Islamic center at 51 Park, but to stand up against anti-Muslim sentiments that have come to permeate in their city and in their country.
"The people who committed those horrific acts in our country nine years ago – these murders, these terrorists – they did it to cause a response. And acts like this always cause a response," noted U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the special guest speaker for the evening and the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.
"But the response that you have had is the response that I prefer – turning to each other, modeling love. That's the best response," Ellison stated.
While the congressmen acknowledged that fear and prejudice are "very human" responses, he said it was "not divine" to respond that way. And he encouraged the crowd to stand against those types of responses, including scapegoating and blaming.
"You should know that New York leads the way for the whole country," Ellison proclaimed. "So when you stand up together and you hold each other close and you demand that our essential dignity is more important than anything that divides us, you lead the way for the whole country. You let us all know that we all count, that we all matter."
In addition to Ellison, the crowd heard from several other individuals, including Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams.
Imam Talim Abdur-Rashid, director of Majlis Ash-Shura, reminded the crowd that "we were all attacked that day."
"And we all died that day, and we all responded that day," he added.
Referring to the list of those whose lives were lost in the 9/11 attacks, Abdur-Rashid reminded the crowd that Christians and Jews weren't the only people who died.
"When we look at the list of three thousand who lost their lives, there are people named there whose names are of obvious Muslim origin," he stated.
In recent months, anti-Islam sentiments appeared to have been fanned to intensity – largely the result of the attention directed on the Islamic center near the site where the towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
While those behind the project say the center "is about promoting integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture," opponents of Muslim-led Park51 say building an Islamic center so close to Ground Zero would be demeaning and offensive to the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Some even say the construction of the center would mark a victory for those who sought and still seek to terrorize the American people.
Supporters of the mosque, however, have been insistent on framing the issue into one of religious freedom and have warned against tying Islam with those responsible for the terrorist attacks.
"We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts," President Obama said during a press conference earlier Friday.
"And we've got to be clear about that," the president continued.
"We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other," he later added.
Ellison, similarly, encouraged demonstrators Friday to embrace one another as the world watches them closely.
The congressman told the crowd that the world wants to know "What are these Americans all about? Are they about turning to people? Are they about bringing people together? Or are they something else?"
"And you emphatically say we are together. We are emphatically together and we can't be torn apart based on religion or based on anything," he stated.
That said, Ellison urged the crowd not to return hate for hate or rejection for rejection. Instead, the congressman concluded, "Overcome evil with good and love. Put out fire with water not more fire. Don't respond to provocation. Don't reward provocation with a negative response.
"Reward good deeds, and when people provoke you, you come together and show them solidarity," he added.
Earlier in the address, Ellison also advised the demonstrators on Saturday to focus solely on the people who died in the 9/11 attacks nine years ago, saying that it is "not proper or right to distract from honoring those heroes and remembering those victims by doing anything else than that tomorrow."
But he admitted the possibility of that "is real."
Friday's vigil was sponsored by New York Neighbors for American Values, a newly formed coalition of 40 civic, religious and civil rights organizations.
The group said they held the vigil on Friday night to avoid entangling the mosque controversy and the Sept. 11 commemoration. Demonstrators were instructed to bring candles and American flags, but no signs. They were also encouraged to wear white in solidarity and peace.
"We are gathering in peaceful, respectful remembrance and unity," the coalition stated.
Aside from the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost nine years ago, over 6,000 people were injured in the attacks in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania.