GAINESVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) - An obscure U.S. Christian pastor whose plan to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11 has sparked an international outcry said on Wednesday he will go ahead with the event despite warnings it will endanger American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pastor Terry Jones, leader of a tiny Protestant church in Gainesville, Florida, which campaigns against what it calls “radical Islam,” is facing a barrage of calls from U.S. government, military and religious leaders, and from abroad, to cancel plans to publicly burn Islam’s holy book.
“We are not convinced that backing down is the right thing,” Jones, a gray-haired, mustachioed preacher with mutton-chop sideburns and author of a book titled “Islam is of the Devil,” told a crowd of reporters in a brief statement made in the grassy yard in front of his stone-and-metal church.
“A burning of the Koran is to call attention that something is wrong,” said Jones, wearing a gray suit and a tie.
“We need to stand up and confront terrorism,” he added, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by militant Islamist group al Qaeda.
The planned Koran-burning on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has attracted worldwide condemnation and touched off protests in Afghanistan and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
It also comes near the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and amid heightened tensions in the United States over a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks in New York.
Opponents of the building plan say it is insensitive to families of the victims of the attacks.
With anger growing in Afghanistan over the proposed Koran-burning, Afghan police went on alert to guard against more protests. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply disturbed” by the Koran-burning plan and the Vatican also joined a growing chorus of global criticism.
Jones said that despite the worldwide outcry, he had received phone calls of support, including some from serving members in the U.S. armed forces.
One of his associate pastors carried a holstered gun.
Jones ignored shouted questions and returned to his church after his statement. A painted sign on a nearby trailer announced plans for the “International burn a Koran day”.
The pastor’s son, Luke Jones, said the church had about 200 Korans to burn — some sent by supporters, the rest purchased. “We want to confront a religion we believe is leading people to hell ... Think of us as crazy. That’s up to you,” he said.
An imam from a local Florida Muslim group was present during Jones’ statement and later entered the church to urge him to call off the event, quoting Bible verses and encouraging him to follow Jesus’ teaching of “love your enemy”.
“I strongly believe at the end of the day he will make the right step and call off the event” Muhammad Musri, head of the Islamic Society for Central Florida, told reporters.
“It’s never too late to call it off. The world will admire his courage.”
The planned Koran-burning drew increased criticism from the U.S. government.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told staff in a morning meeting at the Pentagon he “strongly endorsed” the view of his military commanders that any Koran-burning plan could endanger U.S. lives, said a Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Dave Lapan.
“We hope that the world will appreciate that this is the action of a very small fringe group and does not represent the views of the United States or Americans as a whole,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Two of the top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have said the Florida church’s plan risks undermining U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to reach out to Muslims across the world.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, whose country has nearly 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, said in a statement: “This initiative is insulting to Muslims and Canadians of all faiths who understand that freedom of thought and freedom of religion are fundamental to our way of living.”
On Tuesday, several high-ranking Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke out against the planned event, and leading Christian and Jewish leaders also voiced outrage.
Authorities in Gainesville say they are tightening security for Saturday’s event at Jones’ church, which is called the Dove World Outreach Center. Local police say it is believed to have only around 30 members.
Law enforcement officials said a number of death threats, including one reported to be from a known “terrorist organization,” have been made against Jones, and the FBI and federal agencies were working with Gainesville authorities.
U.S. officials say that First Amendment constitutional rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly and religion prevent them from prohibiting the event.
But local authorities have warned Jones that he would violate city ordinances if he went ahead without proper authorization. City officials have denied his request for a burn permit.
In Iran, the planned Koran-burning drew protest from a leading cleric. “I along with 1.5 billion Muslims ... condemn this brutal and savage spirit ... I warn about its consequences,” Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi-Golpaygani told Iran’s Students News Agency ISNA.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Sue Pleming in Washington, Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, Paul Tait in Kabul, Brian Rohan and Claudia Doerries in Berlin, James Mackenzie in Rome; writing by Kevin Gray; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Mohammad Zargham)
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