MIAMI Civil and military leaders stepped up calls on Tuesday for an obscure U.S. pastor to drop his plans to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, as fears grew it would fan religious hatred.
Pastor Terry Jones of the small Gainesville, Florida-based Dove World Outreach Center church, which has announced the Koran-burning for Saturday, said he was praying about the event but showed no immediate signs of backing down from his plan.
The planned public torching of the Muslim holy book on U.S. soil already has triggered angry protests in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are fighting Taliban militants, and U.S. military commanders said the event could endanger Americans' lives.
It comes at a time of heated debate in the United States over a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque close to 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 2001 attacks by the militant Islamist group al Qaeda.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday condemned the proposed Koran-burning, calling it disrespectful and saying it could put Western troops in Afghanistan at risk.
Authorities in Gainesville were preparing special security measures to prevent trouble on Saturday at the event by the little-known church, which has about 30 members and calls itself a "New Testament, Charismatic, Non-Denominational Church." It says it wants to "expose Islam" as a "violent and oppressive religion."
The city's mayor and police department repeated appeals to Jones call off the Koran-burning. They warned that while his First Amendment constitutional rights guaranteed freedom of speech, assembly and religion, he would violate city ordinances if he went ahead without proper authorization. City officials already have denied his request for a burn permit.
"EMBARRASSMENT TO GAINESVILLE"
"We hope that good judgment will prevail," said the city's communications manager, Bob Woods.
Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe condemned what he called the church's "offensive behavior."
"The Dove World Outreach Center is a tiny, fringe group and an embarrassment to our community," Lowe said on his Facebook site. "They are opposed to the true character of Gainesville."
Jones told CNN he was seriously considering the U.S. military commanders' warnings about possible Muslim retaliation to his act but he seemed defiant.
"When do we stop backing down? ... when does America stand for truth?" he said in the interview broadcast by CNN. "Instead of us being blamed for what other people will do or might do, why don't we send a warning to them?"
A number of death threats, including one reported to be from a known "terrorist organization," had been made against Jones, and the FBI and other federal agencies were working with the Gainesville authorities, law enforcement sources said.
Gainesville police spokeswoman Tscharna Senn told Reuters there would be a "heightened police presence" around the private property where Jones planned the Koran-burning, in a residential neighborhood of Gainesville. She gave no details, citing security precautions.
Law enforcement sources said Jones' church had been in trouble before with authorities over a bid to send members' children to school wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Islam is of the Devil." Local schools barred the T-shirts.
On Monday in the Afghan capital Kabul, several hundred people, mostly students, demonstrated against the planned Koran-burning in Florida, chanting "Death to America."
The U.S. government, through its embassy in Kabul, condemned what it called "acts of disrespect against the religion of Islam."
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Editing by Bill Trott)