GAINESVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) - A militant fundamentalist Christian preacher in Florida whose burning of a Koran triggered deadly riots in Afghanistan was unrepentant on Saturday and defiantly vowed to lead an anti-Islam protest outside the biggest mosque in the United States.
The planned demonstration could further inflame tensions over the Koran burning, which led to two days of protests in Afghanistan that included the killings of U.N. staff and stoked anti-Western sentiment in parts of the Muslim world.
“Our aim is to make an awareness of the radical element of Islam,” Pastor Terry Jones told Reuters in an interview at the church he leads in the college town of Gainesville, Florida. A picture of the burning Koran was on his computer screen.
“Obviously it is terrible any time people are murdered or killed. I think that on the other hand, it shows the radical element of Islam.”
Jones, a former hotel manager turned pastor who claims the Koran incites violence, said he will go ahead with a protest on April 22 in front of the largest mosque in the United States, located in Dearborn, Michigan.
President Barack Obama denounced the act of burning a Koran but did not mention Jones by name.
“The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House on Saturday. “However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity.”
Jones provoked an international outcry last year over his plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
He backed down after pleas from the U.S. government and other world officials, but then presided over a March 20 mock trial of the Koran that included a torching of the book. It barely drew media attention but Internet footage reverberated across the Muslim world.
A range of Christian and U.S. Muslim leaders have condemned Jones and his small Dove World Outreach Center church, which reportedly has a congregation of around 30 members.
“One of the great tragedies of all this is that a tiny fringe church can cause such an uproar,” said Geoff Tunnicliffe, director of the World Evangelical Alliance International, which groups together evangelical churches in more than 100 countries.
“My question to him is, ‘Why would you want to provoke people to this kind of response, knowing this was probably going to be the outcome?'”
Government officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan have called for U.S. authorities to arrest Jones. However, his public criticism of Islam and desecration of the Koran are allowed under U.S. laws protecting free speech.
Jones defended the Koran burning and said the reaction in Afghanistan “shows exactly what we’re talking about.”
“If my neighbor offends me, it does not give me the right to break into his house and kill him,” he told Reuters.
He said he has received several hundred death threats since he first talked of burning the Koran last September, leading him to carry a handgun and take shooting classes.
Safety concerns at the church have driven away most of the churchgoers, he said. “We have seen a drop-off.”
He did not say whether he intended to burn another Koran during the upcoming protest, which he said should not be viewed as an attack against all Muslims.
“To the peaceful Muslim that lives down the street, we are sorry if our actions have offended them, which I am sure it has. But at the same we are not trying to attack them,” he said. “We are trying to make it very clear that we are against this radical element,” he added.
Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Paul Simao and Kieran Murray