A Christian minister said Tuesday that he will go ahead with plans to burn copies of the Quran 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.
Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center said he understands the government’s concerns, but 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 he is still praying about his decision.
In Maine, organizations that promote religious freedom and condemn hate speech said they sense a rise in tension within the state’s Muslim community, but so far have heard of no incidents triggered by the Florida church’s intentions.
Jenan Jondy, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono, said the controversy in Florida has only strengthened the welcoming spirit she has always experienced from Mainers.
“We’ve actually had an outpouring of support, which is very nice,” she said. “This is not causing any tension whatsoever.”
She said she doesn’t believe Jones is speaking for the majority of Americans with his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“He has about 50 people in his congregation,” said Jondy. “He’s making this decision on his own and it’s not an educated decision. It’s very disrespectful.”
Gen. David 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 Quran un-American and saying it does not represent the views of most people in the U.S.
“While it may well be within someone’s rights to take this action, we hope cooler heads will prevail,” Crowley said. He said burning copies of the Quran would be inconsistent with the values of religious tolerance and religious freedom, and potentially puts the lives of U.S. soldiers and diplomats at risk.
Jones told the AP in a phone interview that he is also concerned but wonders how many times the U.S. 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.”
Eric Smith, associate director of the Maine Council of Churches, said his group is concerned enough about the situation that it is considering taking action this week to plead for tolerance during the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We are looking at putting out a statement this week around the fact that there is this increasing tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the country,” he said during an interview. “We see it growing in Maine as well, and this isn’t the first time it’s happened.”
Smith said his group has been tuned in to the issue in recent weeks because of a dispute in Portland over the creation of a mosque that didn’t conform with local zoning standards.
Zach Heiden, legal director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said his group also was involved in that issue on the grounds that federal law prevents local or state rules from preventing a group to practice its religion. Heiden said the case, which
has been essentially resolved in favor of the mosque, only added to the tension already felt by Muslims in Maine and elsewhere.
“Our clients in the case here in Portland, like many Muslims in the country, came to our country fleeing religious persecution,” he said.
Steve Wessler, executive director of the Portland-based Center for Preventing Hate, said he doesn’t know of any recent acts of discrimination or hate against Muslims in Maine, but that he does sense the state is not immune from negative sentiments.
“Nationally there is a heightened level of misunderstanding and stereotyping of Muslims,” said Wessler. “I think that also exists in Maine, but there are also many, many people in Maine who understand that Muslims are like any other Americans. We have to resist stereotyping all Muslims for what some Muslims do.”
Paul Grosswiler, an associate professor of communications at the University of Maine, said free speech means free speech, even if it is offensive.
“We have a wide-open discourse that does not discriminate against hateful expression,” he said. “Whether you burn Qurans, American flags, Bibles or bras, it is part of the United States’ philosophy of protecting offensive ideas. It’s perfectly legal for this group of Christians to burn copies of the Quran.”
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 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 Quran is protected by the First Amendment whether he has permission from the city or not.
Muslims consider the Quran 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 Quran 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 Quran at their own weekend services — to counter what 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 Jones’ plan.
“No one burns the Quran,” read the headline in Tuesday’s L’Osservatore Romano.
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 Quran-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 the ground zero site in New York.
The Quran, according to 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 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 to speak out against it. Last month, Indonesian Muslims demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, threatening violence if Jones goes through with it.
“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 Jones and counter his message.
Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy and Kimberly Dozier and Bangor Daily News writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.