- Associated Press - Thursday, September 9, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — As Florida officials worried about public safety surrounding a small church’s plan to burn the Koran, President Obama added his voice to the chorus of opposition to the church’s intention to burn copies of Islam’s holiest text to mark the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Elsewhere, an Afghan cleric threatened Thursday that U.S. troops in the country’s north would face large protests if the Koran burning took place.

Mr. Obama urged the Rev. Terry Jones to “listen to those better angels” and call off his plan to engage in a Koran-burning protest this weekend.

In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” broadcast Thursday, Mr. Obama said what Mr. Jones proposes “is completely contrary to our values as Americans. This country has been built on the notion of freedom and religious tolerance.”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday he would closely monitor what happens Saturday at the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville 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 Mr. 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 centers of the Islamic teaching — would be the primary target.

Despite the mounting pressure to call off the bonfire, Mr. Jones said he has received much encouragement and was going through with his plan. Supporters have sent him copies of the Koran to burn, he said.

“As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing,” said Mr. Jones, 58, who took no questions at a press conference Wednesday.

USA Today reported that Mr. 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.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, Mr. Jones was flanked by an armed escort and said he has received more than 100 death threats since announcing in July that he would stage “International Burn-a-Koran Day.” The book, according to Mr. Jones, is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.

Muslims consider the Koran 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.

At home, the Gainesville Police Department will be dealing with some 90,000 fans Saturday and even more tailgaters expected for the Florida-South Florida football game. The game is at 12:20 p.m. and the Koran burning is set for 6 p.m.

Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe condemned the church’s “offensive behavior.”

“The Dove World Outreach Center is a tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community. They are opposed to Gainesville’s true character,” Mr. Lowe said in a statement.

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