- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 7, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A Christian minister said Tuesday that he will go ahead with plans to burn copies of the Koran to protest the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, despite warnings from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan and the White House that doing so would endanger U.S. troops.

The Rev. Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, said he understands the government’s concerns, but he plans to go forward with the burning this Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the attacks.

He left the door open to change his mind, however, saying that he is still praying about his decision.

Gen. David H. Petraeus warned Tuesday in an e-mail to the Associated Press that “images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed that later in the day, calling the plan to burn copies of the Koran “un-American” and saying it does not represent the views of most people in the United States.

“While it may well be within someone’s rights to take this action, we hope cooler heads will prevail,” Mr. Crowley said. He said burning copies of the Koran would be “inconsistent with the values of religious tolerance and religious freedom,” and it potentially puts the lives of U.S. soldiers and diplomats at risk.

Mr. Jones told the AP in a phone interview that he also is concerned but wonders how many times the United States can back down.

“We think it’s time to turn the tables, and instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs — on the people who would do it,” he said. “And maybe instead of addressing us, we should address radical Islam and send a very clear warning that they are not to retaliate in any form.”

Mr. Jones, who runs the small, evangelical Christian church with an anti-Islam philosophy, says he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip.

The threats started not long after the 58-year-old minister proclaimed in July that he would stage “International Burn a Quran Day.” Supporters have been mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his Dove World Outreach Center to be incinerated in a bonfire that evening.

The fire department has denied Mr. Jones a required burn permit for Saturday, but he has vowed to go ahead with his event. He said lawyers have told him his right to burn the Koran is protected by the First Amendment, whether he has permission from the city or not.

Muslims consider the Koran 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 Koran is deeply offensive.

In this progressive north Florida town of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, the lanky preacher with the bushy white mustache is seen mostly as a fringe character who doesn’t deserve the attention he’s getting.

Still, at least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in Gainesville have mobilized to plan inclusive events — some will read from the Koran at their own weekend services — to counter what Mr. Jones is doing. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the church Saturday.

The Vatican newspaper on Tuesday published an article in which Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha of Lahore, Pakistan, criticized Mr. Jones‘ plan.

“No one burns the Quran,” read the headline in Tuesday’s L’Osservatore Romano.

Mr. Jones, who has about 50 followers, gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of his small church proclaiming “Islam is of the Devil.” But his Koran-burning scheme, after it caught fire on the Internet, brought rebukes from Muslim nations and an avalanche of media interview requests just as an emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York.

The Koran, according to Mr. Jones, is “evil” because it espouses something other than the Christian biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior 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.”

FBI agents have visited to talk about their concerns for Mr. Jones‘ safety, as multiple Facebook pages with thousands of members have popped up hailing him as either a hero or a dangerous pariah.

His plan has drawn formal condemnation from the world’s pre-eminent Sunni Muslim institution of learning, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, whose Supreme Council 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 Mr. Jones goes through with his plans.

“Whenever there’s a perception that America is somehow anti-Muslim, that harms our image and interests around the Islamic world,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights group that has worked to discredit Mr. Jones and counter his message.

Associated Press writer Kimberly Dozier in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.