Reaction to proposed Koran burning doesn’t faze Florida church

The pastor of a tiny, fringe evangelical church in Florida on Tuesday rebuffed a plea for restraint from Gen. David H. Petraeus, who warned that a plan to burn the Muslim holy book could provoke violence against American troops and citizens overseas.

“Instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs — on the people who would do it,” Pastor Terry Jones of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told the Associated Press. “We should address radical Islam and send a very clear warning that they are not to retaliate in any form.”

Jones also said he was still praying over his decision and hinted that he might change his mind. “We understand the general’s concerns and we are taking those into consideration,” he told WOFL-TV in Orlando.

A coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders held a news conference in Washington on Tuesday to condemn Jones’ statements and other slurs aimed at Muslims nationwide.

“The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Koran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11,” said a statement by religious leaders organized by the Islamic Society of North America.

Religious leaders warned that Muslims overseas would interpret extremists like Jones as reflecting mainstream American attitudes toward Muslims. In Afghanistan on Monday, protesters made a point of wrapping an effigy of Jones in an American flag before burning both the effigy and the flag.

Reaction in the Arab news media was more muted, with most commentators and government officials calling on U.S. citizens to honor religious freedom and condemn Jones.

Petraeus, who directs U.S. forces in Afghanistan, seemed concerned that Jones’ insults would enrage ordinary Afghans whom his soldiers are trying to win over as they battle Taliban religious extremists.

The general said Monday that images of burning Korans “would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence.”

Weeks of anti-Muslim diatribes by Jones have brought unwelcome publicity to Gainesville, a progressive college town of 125,000 that normally would be focused on the University of Florida’s football game Saturday. Jones’ antics have also fed into a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide as the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches and U.S. troops continue to die in two wars waged in Muslim nations.

The reverend’s threat follows angry protests against a proposed Islamic center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York. In recent weeks, other protesters have objected to planned mosques or Islamic centers in several states, calling them threats to local security.

In Gainesville, news crews have descended on the small stone-and-frame church, located on the city’s northern outskirts. Jones’ leathery, mustachioed face has appeared on TV networks beamed worldwide, delivering fiery condemnations of Islam.

City officials in Gainesville, where Mayor Craig Lowe has called the Dove World Outreach Center “an embarrassment to our community,” have vowed to try to prevent Jones from burning anything on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the attacks.

Jones has been denied a burning permit, but says his lawyers have advised him that his 1st Amendment right to express his beliefs supersedes any local ordinance.

Police and other public safety officials will be on hand Saturday to enforce the city’s open-burning law, said Bob Woods, Gainesville’s communications manager. The ordinance’s list of eight classes of items that may not be burned does not specifically include books, but does include paper.

Asked what the city would do if Jones carried out his threat, Woods replied, “We would respond appropriately. It depends on his actions.”

Lowe asked Gainesville residents to join him “in continuing to assert our community’s true character” in response to what he called Jones’ “offensive behavior.”

Jones said he had received more than 100 death threats and now wears a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip. FBI agents have visited the preacher to voice concerns for his safety, according to the Associated Press.

The world’s leading Sunni Muslim institution, Al Azhar University in Egypt, has accused Jones of fomenting hate and bigotry and has asked American churches to condemn him. Indonesian Muslims have demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, threatening violence if any Korans are burned.

In 2005, after a report in Newsweek — later retracted — that U.S. guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison had flushed a Koran down a toilet, deadly riots broke out in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Hundreds of protesters in Afghanistan’s capital burned an effigy of President Obama in October 2009, acting on rumors that American troops had desecrated the Koran. U.S. military officials emphatically denied that any copies of the Muslim holy book had been mishandled.

For Muslims, the Koran is the word of Allah. The holy book is treated with deep reverence, and any defiling of it is considered a grave offense.

“The Holy Koran is sacred, just like the Bible is to Christians,” Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, director of community outreach for the Islamic Society of North America, said in an interview. “Desecration of this book is something people will not tolerate.”

Elsanousi said his organization has asked Muslims worldwide not to react violently if Korans are indeed burned.

The White House said Tuesday it agreed with Petraeus that burning Korans could endanger U.S. troops overseas, and the State Department called Jones’ threat “un-American.”

Last week, Jones said burning Korans “is a message that we have been called to bring forth. And because of that, we do not feel we can back down.”

Asked Tuesday about Petraeus’ concerns, Jones told the Orlando TV station: “We should be issuing statements to radical Islam telling them this is enough. They better not do anything. If they do, we will answer.”

On Labor Day, Jones posed in a dark suit outside his church, next to a portable billboard that read: “International Burn A Koran Day — 9/11/2010 — 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.”

Jones has written a book titled “Islam Is of the Devil,” and his church has distributed T-shirts bearing the same message. On the church’s website, a “Ten Reasons to Burn the Koran” list discusses the plan:

“We are using this act to warn about the teaching and ideology of Islam, which we do hate as it is hateful. The world is in bondage to the massive grip of the lies of Islam.”

According to the church, supporters have mailed in Korans to be burned.