Carrying Bibles and singing "Amazing Grace," a group of pastors knelt on the street outside ground zero on Saturday to protest New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision not to include a clergy-led prayer in the ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
About 50 pastors and supporters prayed outside the chain-link fence around the site as police and National Guard troops carrying shotguns and combat rifles watched from a distance. Protesters said they felt shut out of Sunday's memorial service.
"Many of us served here after the attacks, and we know the importance of prayer and the presence of clergy," said Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical pastor. "To exclude them from the ceremony was hurtful."
Thousands of people have signed a petition asking for a formal prayer at Sunday's ceremony, but Bloomberg has said it would be impossible to include all the religious leaders who would like to participate. His office says the ceremony will include readings that are "spiritual and personal in nature" and that there will be six minutes of silence for personal reflection or silent prayer.
City officials are also keen to avoid the religious conflicts that have flared around ground zero in recent years.
Plans to build a mosque in lower Manhattan ignited protests last year, and in July an atheist group sued to keep the September 11 Memorial and Museum from exhibiting a cross that was formed when girders broke from the collapsing World Trade Center.
Some leaders, including Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan and the New York Board of Rabbis, have said they agree with Bloomberg's decision. Worshipers are welcome at dozens of religious services around the city, they say.
But the Southern Baptist Convention, the Catholic League, the Family Research Council and other religious groups say barring clergy from the ceremony ignores the central role that religious groups played during the Sept. 11 attacks and the recovery afterward.
One of the victims of the attacks, Michael Judge, was a fire department chaplain who was killed by a falling body while performing last rites for the dead.
A Greek Orthodox church was destroyed when the damaged World Trade Center collapsed.
Churches around the country donated tons of supplies for relief workers, and an Episcopal congregation allowed rescue workers to operate out of St. Paul's Chapel for months.
Clergy performed thousands of funerals and dozens of memorial services, including an interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Individual church members pitched in to help feed and support the families of the dead.
Fernando Cabrera, a New York City councilman and pastor of a church in the Bronx, said he had collected 100,000 names for a petition asking for a formal prayer.
"The American public wants prayer at this event," Cabrera said. "They could have had different faiths offering prayer, and it would have been a beautiful message to send to the world."
Passers-by who watched the pastors' protest at ground zero were divided on Bloomberg's decision.
"I think it's terrible," said Sarah Cavanagh, of Bayside, Queens. "It's Sunday. It's God's day."
But others felt it was the right thing to do, noting that religious hatred helped motivate the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"Religion got us into this problem in the first place, so I think it's OK," said Lisa Gianforte, 30, a tourist from Chicago. "A moment of reflection can be a spiritual moment or a nonspiritual moment to each person."