- 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.

He asked residents to avoid the church’s cross streets on Saturday and to watch for suspicious behavior.

“If you see anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small it might be, report it immediately,” he said.

The mayor also urged residents and football fans in town not to do anything to “unnecessarily involve the police.”

No one from the police department was available to immediately comment late Wednesday on security measures at the church where at least one counter-protest was planned by a University of Florida student group.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, e-mailed the Associated Press to say “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.” It comes as an emotional debate continues over a proposed Islamic center near the ground zero site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.

Gen. Petraeus spoke Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the matter, according to a military spokesman Col. Erik Gunhus.

“They both agreed that burning of a Koran would undermine our effort in Afghanistan, jeopardize the safety of coalition troopers and civilians,” Col. 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 Defense Secretary Robert Gates, urged Mr. Jones to cancel the event.

Not just the Democratic administration has weighed in. Ex-Alaska governor and former Republican candidate for vice president Sarah Palin said in a Facebook post that although people have the constitutional right to burn the Koran, doing so would be an “insensitive and an unnecessary provocation — much like building a mosque at ground zero.”

Conservative radio and television host Glenn Beck wrote in an Internet blog that burning the Koran is like burning the flag or the Bible — something people can do in the United States, but shouldn’t. Legal experts have said the burning would likely be protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

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 President 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.

“If Koran is burned, it would be beginning of destruction of America,” read one English-language banner held up by the protesters, who chanted “Down with America!”

Mr. JonesDove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It 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.

The Vatican also denounced the protest and a religious watchdog group, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said it would send a copy of the Koran to the Afghan National Army for every one that might be burned.

Mr. Jones‘ neighbors in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, also have said they disapprove. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city have mobilized to plan inclusive events — some will read from the Koran at their own weekend services.

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Robert Reid in Kabul and Curt Anderson and Kelli Kennedy in Miami contributed to this report.

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