TORONTO — The anti-Muslim pastor at the heart of a fiery debate about plans to burn the Muslim holy book acknowledged Thursday there’s still a chance he’ll call off his controversial attempt to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In an interview Thursday with a Toronto radio station, Rev. Terry Jones said he’s well aware of pressure coming from around the world. Political and military leaders are decrying the Florida pastor’s plans to burn Qur’ans on the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“We are of course taking all of those things into consideration, that is probably putting it lightly,” Jones, who heads up the 50-member Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told radio station AM640.
“We are very much in prayer about it. There is the possibility, of course, that we will not do it.”
Earlier Thursday, President Barack Obama used an appearance on “Good Morning America” to add his voice to the chorus of global opposition, urging Jones to “listen to those better angels” and call off his plan.
That followed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rare acknowledgment of his own faith Wednesday when he, too, denounced the idea of burning Islam’s holiest text.
“I don’t speak very often about my own religion but let me be very clear: My God and my Christ is a tolerant God, and that’s what we want to see in this world,” Harper said.
“I unequivocally condemn it… We all enjoy freedom of religion and that freedom of religion comes from a tolerant spirit. I don’t think that’s the way you treat other faiths, as different as those faiths may be from your own.”
The Muslim Canadian Congress said Thursday that it has sent an urgent appeal to Jones to reconsider.
“We understand the pain of America as it mourns its dead, but the jihadis who have declared war on America are not inspired by Islam or the Qur’an,” congress president Sohail Raza said in a release.
“These jihadis are not just the enemies of America, but all of human civilization, including Muslims.”
Military leaders in the U.S. and Canada have warned that such a provocative act of defiance would put westerners in danger, particularly American and NATO troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the interview, Jones acknowledged that his efforts to make his church’s views about Islam known have already been wildly successful. But to cancel the burning would be to concede defeat, he suggested.
“We have made our point; we have gotten the word out, if you want to say, more than we ever realized,” he said. “If we were to back down, that would of course ease the tension at this time, but the radical element of Islam will not back down, and will probably only get more radical.”
Hundreds of angry Afghans gathered Thursday northeast of Kabul to burn an American flag and chant “Death to the Christians” as they registered their anger and outrage over the plan. NATO spokesman James Judge said the protest numbered between 500 to 700 people.
“The Afghan national police prevented the protest from overwhelming an Afghan military outpost” and dispersed the demonstration, he told The Associated Press.
The Qur’an burning is “precisely the kind of activity the Taliban uses to fuel their propaganda efforts to reduce support” for coalition forces, Judge added.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday he would closely monitor what happens Saturday at the church to try to ensure people are safe. U.S. embassies around the world will be doing the same after being ordered by the State Department to assess their security. Officials fear the burning could spark anti-American violence, including against soldiers, a concern shared by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
“In addition to being offensive, the Gainesville protest puts at risk those brave Americans who are fighting abroad for the freedoms and values that we believe in as Americans,” said Crist, who is running as an independent for the U.S. Senate.
In Afghanistan, Abdul Hadi Rostaqi, a member of the cleric council in the country’s largely peaceful Balkh province, said Thursday that if the burning goes ahead, “a big protest will be held” in the provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif next Monday. NATO-led troops stationed in the city — one of the country’s main centres of the Islamic teaching — would be the primary target.
Despite the mounting pressure to call off the bonfire, Jones has said he has received much encouragement. Supporters have sent him copies of the Qur’an to burn, he said.
USA Today reported that Jones said in an interview he had not been contacted by the White House, State Department or Pentagon. If such a call comes, he said, “that would cause us to definitely think it over. That’s what we’re doing now. I don’t think a call from them is something we would ignore.”
Muslims consider the Qur’an the word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect. At least one cleric in Afghanistan said it is the duty of Muslims to react and that could mean killing Americans.
Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe condemned the church’s “offensive behaviour.”
“The Dove World Outreach Center is a tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community. They are opposed to Gainesville’s true character,” Lowe said in a statement.
He asked residents to avoid the church’s cross streets on Saturday and to watch for suspicious behaviour.
“If you see anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small it might be, report it immediately.”
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said 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.”
Petraeus spoke Wednesday with Afghan President Karzai about the matter, according to a military spokesman Col. Erik Gunhus.
“They both agreed that burning of a Qur’an would undermine our effort in Afghanistan, jeopardize the safety of coalition troopers and civilians,” Gunhus said, and would “create problems for our Afghan partners … as it likely would be Afghan police and soldiers who would have to deal with any large demonstrations.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the pastor’s plans were outrageous, and along with Defence Secretary Robert Gates, urged Jones to cancel the event.
The foreign ministries of Pakistan and the Gulf nation of Bahrain issued some of the first official denunciations in the Muslim world, with Bahrain calling it a “shameful act which is incompatible with the principles of tolerance and coexistence.” Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
The president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has also sent a letter to Obama asking him to stop the bonfire.
In Pakistan, about 200 lawyers and civil society members marched and burned a U.S. flag in the central Pakistani city of Multan, demanding that Washington halt the burning of the Muslim holy book.