GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The government turned up the pressure Tuesday on the head of a small Florida church who plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on Sept. 11, warning him that doing so could endanger U.S. troops and Americans everywhere.
But the Rev. Terry Jones insisted he would go ahead with his plans, despite criticism from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, the White House and the State Department, as well as a host of religious leaders.
Jones, who is known for posting signs proclaiming that Islam is the devil’s religion, says the U.S. Constitution gives him the right to publicly set fire to the book that Muslims consider the word of God.
Gen. David Petraeus warned Tuesday in an email to The Associated Press that “images of the burning of a Qur’an would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence.” It was a rare example of a military commander taking a position on a domestic political matter.
Jones responded that he is also concerned but is “wondering, ’When do we stop?”’ He refused to cancel the protest set for Saturday at his Dove World Outreach Center, a church that espouses an anti-Islam philosophy.
“How much do we back down? How many times do we back down?” Jones told the AP. “Instead of us backing down, maybe it’s to time to stand up. Maybe it’s time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behaviour.”
Still, Jones said he will pray about his decision.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the administration hoped Americans would stand up and condemn the church’s plan.
“We think that these are provocative acts,” Crowley said. “We would like to see more Americans stand up and say that this is inconsistent with our American values; in fact, these actions themselves are un-American.”
Meeting Tuesday with religious leaders to discuss recent attacks on Muslims and mosques around the U.S., Attorney General Eric Holder called the planned burning both idiotic and dangerous, according to a Justice Department official. The official requested anonymity because the meeting was private.
Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may address the controversy at a dinner Tuesday evening in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed the concerns raised by Petraeus. “Any type of activity like that that puts our troops in harm’s way would be a concern to this administration,” Gibbs told reporters.
Jones said he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a .40-calibre pistol strapped to his hip.
The 58-year-old minister said the death threats started not long after he proclaimed in July that he would stage “International Burn-a-Qur’an Day.”
Supporters have been mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his church to be incinerated in a bonfire.
Jones, who has about 50 followers, gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of his small church declaring “Islam is of the Devil.”
But his Qur’an-burning scheme attracted wider attention. It drew rebukes from Muslim nations and an avalanche of media interview requests just as an emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic centre near the ground zero site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
The Qur’an, according to Jones, is “evil” because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behaviour among Muslims.
“It’s hard for people to believe, but we actually feel this is a message that we have been called to bring forth,” he said last week. “And because of that, we do not feel like we can back down.”
Muslims consider the Qur’an 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 Qur’an is deeply offensive to Muslims.
Jones’ Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. The church follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare against satanic forces.
At first glance, the church looks like a warehouse rather than a place of worship. A stone facade and a large lighted cross adorn the front of the beige steel building, which stands on 20 acres (8 hectares) in Gainesville’s leafy northern suburbs. Jones and his wife, Sylvia, live on the property and also use part of it to store furniture that they sell on eBay.
A broad coalition of religious leaders from evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim organizations met in Washington on Tuesday and condemned the plan to burn the Qur’an as a violation of American values.
“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.’“
FBI agents have visited with Jones to discuss concern for his safety. Multiple Facebook pages with thousands of members have popped up hailing him as a hero or blasting him as a dangerous pariah.
The world’s leading Sunni Muslim institution of learning, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, accused the church of stirring up hate and discrimination, and called on other American churches speak out against it.
Last month, Indonesian Muslims demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, threatening violence if Jones goes through with it.
In this progressive Florida city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, the lanky preacher with the bushy white moustache is mostly seen as a fringe character who doesn’t deserve special attention.
At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in Gainesville have mobilized to plan inclusive events — some will read from the Qur’an at their own weekend services — to counter what Jones is doing. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the church on Sept. 11.
Gainesville’s new mayor, Craig Lowe, who during his campaign became the target of a Jones-led protest because he is openly gay, has declared Sept. 11 Interfaith Solidarity Day in the city.
Jones dismisses the response of the other churches as “cowardly.” He said even if they think burning Qurans is extreme, Christian ministers should be standing with him in denouncing the principles of Islam.
All the attention has caused other problems for Jones, too. He believes it’s the reason his mortgage lender has demanded full payment of the $140,000 still owed on the church property. He’s seeking donations to cover it, but recently listed the property for sale with plans to eventually move the church away from Gainesville.
The fire department has denied Jones a required burn permit for Sept. 11, but he said lawyers have told him his right to burn Qurans is protected by the Constitution, with or without the city’s permission.
The same would hold true, he said, if Muslims wanted to burn Bibles in the front yard of a mosque.
“Of course, I would not like it,” Jones said. But “I definitely would not threaten to kill them, as we have been threatened.”