GAINESVILLE — The leader of a small Florida church that espouses anti-Islam philosophy said Wednesday he was determined to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, despite pressure from the White House, religious leaders and others to call it off.
Pastor Terry Jones said at a press conference that he has received a lot of encouragement, with supporters mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his Gainesville church of about 50 followers. He proclaimed in July that he would stage “International Burn-a-Quran Day” to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11.
“As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing,” said Jones, who took no questions.
Jones said he has received more than 100 death threats and has started carrying a .40-caliber pistol since announcing his plan to burn the book Muslims consider the word of God and insist be treated with the utmost respect. Jones, 58, was flanked by an armed escort Wednesday.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, took the rare step of a military leader taking a position on a domestic matter when he warned 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.”
Petraeus spoke Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the matter, according to military spokesman Col. Erik Gunhus. “They both agreed that burning a Quran 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 Defense Secretary Robert Gates, urged Jones to cancel the event.
“It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world’s attention, but that’s the world we live in right now,” Clinton said in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Jones gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of his church declaring “Islam is of the Devil.” But his Quran-burning idea attracted wider attention. It drew rebukes from Muslim nations and at home as an emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic center near the ground zero site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
Jones’ actions likely would be protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that speech deemed offensive to many people, even the majority of people, cannot be suppressed by the government unless it is clearly directed to intimidate someone or amounts to an incitement to violence, legal experts said.
In Afghanistan, Jones’ planned burning continued to provoke outrage.
“It is the duty of Muslims to react,” said Mohammad Mukhtar, a cleric and candidate for the Afghan parliament in the Sept. 18 election. “When their holy book Quran gets burned in public, then there is nothing left. If this happens, I think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world, they will be killed.”
Muslims consider the Quran along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad to be sacred. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect the Quran is deeply offensive.