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Florida pastor says he may burn Korans after all

Just hours after backing down from plans to burn copies of the Koran, an anti-Muslim evangelist backtracked again Thursday by announcing that his tiny Florida church was considering burning the Islamic holy book after all.

Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., said he canceled the threatened book burning after securing a promise that a controversial Islamic center and mosque planned two blocks from ground zero in New York City would be relocated farther from the former World Trade Center site.

But after two prominent Muslim leaders contradicted Jones’ claim, he ratcheted up tensions anew, telling reporters that he might go ahead with the Koran burning. He said he had been “lied to” by a Florida imam with whom he had discussed moving the New York mosque, the Associated Press reported.

“We assumed what the imam said was true. Now, we’re in a state of limbo and we have to rethink our position,” Jones said Thursday evening, according to CNN. “We are rethinking our position. We are reconsidering, but we’d like to think what the imam said was true. We’re a little back to square one. We hope this thing works out.”

The dizzying back-and-forth came after President Obama called the event a “stunt” and warned that it could lead to violence against Americans overseas and serve as a “recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda.”

The president asked Jones to listen to “those better angels” who pleaded with him to call off the event. U.S. and world leaders, Pope Benedict XVI, Sarah Palin, evangelical Christians and leaders of several religions asked Jones to cancel the event.

Jones, appearing outside his church with Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said he had canceled the Koran-burning event scheduled for Saturday based on a guarantee from Musri that an agreement had been reached to move the planned center. Jones said he planned to travel to New York for Saturday’s 9/11 anniversary events to seal the deal.

“I asked him three times, and I have witnesses,” Jones said. “If it’s not moved, then I think Islam is a very poor example of religion. I think that would be very pitiful. I do not expect that.”

After vowing for days that his contempt for Islam would not allow him to back down because it would embolden “terrorists,” Jones implied that he was not surrendering but was instead forcing Muslims to back down.

At the same time, Jones attempted Thursday to portray himself as a voice of restraint, ordering fellow Christians not to burn Korans because “it’s not the time to do it.”

“We are, of course, now against any other group burning Korans,” Jones said. “We are absolutely strong on that.”

Musri thanked Jones “for making the decision today to defuse the situation and bring to a positive end what has become the world over a spectacle that no one would benefit from except extremists and terrorists.”

But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the proposed site, said he was surprised by Jones’ claims and would not barter with the pastor or “toy with our religion.” Abdul Rauf said he had not even spoken to Jones or Musri.

Musri, for his part, told the Associated Press that he merely offered a meeting between Jones and Abdul Rauf to discuss plans for the center’s location. Musri said he told Jones he does not believe the Islamic facility should be built near the World Trade Center site and would do everything in his power to get it moved.

Musri said Abdul Rauf had not offered to move the proposed site. “All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution,” he said.

In a prepared statement, Abdul Rauf did not indicate whether he would meet with Jones. But he told ABC News that backing down on the proposed Manhattan site would outrage Muslims worldwide and allow terrorists to claim that the U.S. had bullied American Muslims.

Jones had said he might cancel his planned event if he received a personal call from the Obama administration, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a brief call to the pastor. Gates expressed “grave concerns” that burning Korans would put at risk U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Angry demonstrations have already erupted in Indonesia and Afghanistan, where protesters burned an effigy of Jones and an American flag while chanting “Death to Christians!”

In a worldwide travel alert issued before Jones’ announcement, the State Department cautioned that “the potential for further protests and demonstrations, which may turn violent, remains high.”

U.S. government facilities worldwide “remain at a heightened state of alert,” the State Department said.

The FBI this week issued an “intelligence bulletin” encouraging law enforcement officials around the country to remain on heightened alert for potential disturbances or violence related to the Koran threat or to controversies over new mosques and Islamic centers near ground zero, and in Tennessee and California.

Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, said the bulletin was part of a “situational awareness” advisory for state and local police.

Jones, 58, who has become a TV news fixture with his craggy face and white mustache, has published a book titled “Islam Is of the Devil.” He has said that Islam is evil because it ignores biblical truths and encourages violence and terrorism among Muslims.

Even before Jones’ cancellation announcement, the Associated Press said it would not publish photos or videos of the event. Fox News said it would not cover the Koran burnings at all.

Real estate developer Donald Trump offered to pay a major investor of the proposed Manhattan site 25% more than the purchase price. “As part of this offer, it would be agreed that, if you or your representatives were to build a mosque, it would be located at least five blocks further from the World Trade Center site,” Trump wrote in a letter to the investor.

The investor, Hisham Elzanaty, flatly rejected the offer.

“This is just a cheap attempt to get publicity and get in the limelight,” said Elzanaty’s lawyer, Wolodymyr Starosolsky.

Sharif El-Gamal, a developer for the project, denied that plans for the Islamic center and mosque had changed.

“It is untrue that the community center known as Park51 in lower Manhattan is being moved,” El-Gamal said in a statement. “The project will proceed as planned.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com

tina.susman@latimes.com

Zucchino reported from Durham, N.C., and Susman from New York. Paul Richter and Richard A. Serrano of the Washington bureau, special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Stephen Hudak of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.


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