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Plan to burn Koran denounced in many quarters

Faith leaders join Petraeus, other critics

OPEN TO DIVINE GUIDANCE Pastor Terry Jones left the door open to change his mind about the Koran bonfire, saying he is still praying about his decision. OPEN TO DIVINE GUIDANCE
Pastor Terry Jones left the door open to change his mind about the Koran bonfire, saying he is still praying about his decision.
By Mitch Stacy
Associated Press / September 8, 2010

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A Christian minister vowed yesterday to go ahead with plans to burn copies of the Koran to protest the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks despite warnings from the White House and the top US general in Afghanistan that such an act would endanger American troops overseas.

Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center, which has about 50 members, said he understands the government’s concerns but plans to go forward with the burning Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the attacks.

He left the door open to change his mind, saying he is still praying about his decision, which was condemned yesterday by an interfaith coalition that met in Washington to respond to a spike in anti-Muslim bigotry.

General David Petraeus warned in an e-mail to the Associated Press that “images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence.’’

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed that, calling the plan to burn copies of the Koran un-American and saying it does not represent the views of most people in the United States.

“While it may well be within someone’s rights to take this action, we hope cooler heads will prevail,’’ Crowley said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York defended Jones’s right to burn the Muslim holy book, though he called his action “distasteful.’’

“In a strange way, I’m here to defend his right to do that. I happen to think that it is distasteful. I don’t think he would like it if somebody burned a book that in his religion he thinks is holy,’’ the mayor said following a news conference about the progress of the reconstruction at the World Trade Center site.

Bloomberg emphasized that Jones’s planned act is protected by free speech rights.

“We can’t say that we’re going to apply the First Amendment to only those cases where we are in agreement,’’ he said.

Jones said in a phone interview that he is also concerned but implied that not going ahead with the plan would constitute backing down by the United States.

“We think it’s time to turn the tables, and instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs — on the people who would do it,’’ he said. “And maybe instead of addressing us, we should address radical Islam and send a very clear warning that they are not to retaliate in any form.’’

Jones, who runs the small, evangelical Christian church with an anti-Islam philosophy, says he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip.

The threats started not long after the 58-year-old minister proclaimed in July that he would stage “International Burn a Koran Day.’’ Supporters have been mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his Dove World Outreach Center to be incinerated in a bonfire that evening.

The Fire Department has denied Jones a required burn permit for Saturday, but he says he is going ahead with his event. He said lawyers have told him his right to burn the Koran is protected by the First Amendment whether he has permission from the city or not.

Muslims consider the Koran to be the word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect, along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect to the Koran is deeply offensive.

The interfaith group of evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders meeting in Washington condemned Jones’s plan as a violation of American values and the Bible. Among the participants was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C.; Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and top officials from the Islamic Society of North America, the group that organized the gathering.

“This is not the America that we all have grown to love and care about,’’ said Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We have to stand up for our Muslim brothers and sisters and say, ‘This is not OK.’ ’’

In this progressive north Florida town of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, the lanky preacher with the bushy white mustache is mostly seen as a fringe character who doesn’t deserve the attention he’s getting.

Still, at least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples, and Muslim organizations in Gainesville have mobilized to plan inclusive events to counter what Jones is doing. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the church Saturday.

The Vatican newspaper yesterday published an article in which Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha of Lahore, Pakistan, criticized Jones’s plan.

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