MIAMI U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan warned on Monday that a small Florida church's plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks could endanger the lives of American troops.
The warnings followed an angry protest on Monday by several hundred people in the Afghan capital, Kabul, who chanted "Death to America" as they denounced the planned burning event by the Gainesville, Florida-based Dove World Outreach Center church.
The center, calling itself a "New Testament, Charismatic, Non-Denominational Church," says it will go ahead with the torching of the Koran on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the 2001 attacks against the United States. Gainesville authorities have said that will contravene fire safety rules.
Two top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said the proposed burning of the Muslim holy book risked undermining U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. They said it could also trigger retaliation against U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan.
"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort," General David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement to U.S. media organizations.
"It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world, we are engaged with the Islamic community," he added.
Lieutenant-General William Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, told CNN the news of the planned Koran burning by the little-known Florida church was already provoking popular anger in Afghanistan.
"It's their Holy Book, so when somebody says that they're going to destroy that and cause a desecration to something that's very sacred to them, it's already stirred up a lot of discussion and concern amongst the people," he said.
"We very much feel that this could jeopardize the safety of our men and women that are serving over here," Caldwell added.
In Kabul, the demonstrators, mostly students from religious schools who gathered outside Kabul's Milad ul-Nabi mosque, said they would continue their protests.
"We call on America to stop desecrating our Holy Koran," student Wahidullah Nori told Reuters.
The dispute came at a time of already heated debate in the United States over a proposal to build a cultural center and mosque two blocks away from the site in New York of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Opponents of the building plan say it is insensitive to families of the victims of the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda.
U.S. GOVERNMENT SLAMS 'OFFENSIVE INITIATIVE'
U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan soon after those attacks for harboring al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
Demonstrations and riots triggered by reported desecration of the Koran are not infrequent in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. The most violent protests came after cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006.
In comments broadcast by CNN, Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, said it would be "tragic" if anybody's life was lost as a result of the planned Koran burning.
But he added, "Still, I must say that we feel that we must sooner or later stand up to Islam, and if we don't, it's not going to go away."
The church's website says it seeks to "expose Islam" as a "violent and oppressive religion." It displays a sign reading "Islam of the Devil."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the "United States government in no way condones such acts of disrespect against the religion of Islam, and is deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups".
"Americans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds reject this offensive initiative by this small group in Florida, a great number of American voices are protesting the hurtful statements made by this organization," it said in a statement.
Last January, Afghan troops shot and killed eight demonstrators and wounded 13 in southern Helmand province in a riot triggered by a report that foreign troops had desecrated the Koran during a raid. A spokesman for NATO forces denied the report.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Kabul; Editing by Peter Cooney)