KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The pastor of a small Florida church, facing an outpouring of concern from U.S. leaders and anger from Muslims worldwide, said on Friday he did not plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Pastor Terry Jones appeared to leave open the possibility he could change his mind if a proposed meeting fails to take place on Saturday in New York with Muslim leaders planning to build an Islamic center and mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Right now we have plans not to do it (burn the Koran),” Jones told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Jones has said a Florida imam had promised him a meeting with New York imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in exchange for canceling the Koran-burning.
Abdul Rauf is at the center of the controversy over the New York mosque.
“If we meet with him on Saturday then of course we will not burn the Koran,” Jones said in another appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, told ABC he had not promised that the proposed Islamic center in New York would be moved. Musri said he had only agreed to make contact with the New York organizers, set up a meeting and make the case for shifting the site.
“The meeting will happen,” Musri told ABC. But he added that Jones “stretched and exaggerated my statements ... I told him I’m willing to make contact as an imam to the imam in New York, Muslim to Muslim, and ask on his behalf to schedule a meeting.”
Sharif el-Gamal, project developer for the New York mosque, said in a statement it was untrue the center was to be moved.
Jones’ adult son Luke, who wore a handgun on his hip because of death threats against church members, told reporters his father would fly to New York later on Friday.
Asked whether the Koran-burning was going ahead, he replied: “As of right now, no.”
The proposed location of the New York center has drawn opposition from many Americans who say it is insensitive to families of victims of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000, while the threatened Koran-burning by the tiny Dove World Outreach Center has touched off anger in the Muslim world.
Thousands of people took to the streets across Afghanistan on Friday, some threatening to attack U.S. bases.
One protester was shot dead and several were wounded outside a German-run NATO base in northeast Afghanistan and NATO said it was investigating. Demonstrations later spread to the capital, Kabul, and at least four other provinces.
Officials said the German-run base was singled out after German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday paid tribute to freedom of speech at a ceremony for a Dane whose cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad sparked deadly protests five years ago.
Jones’ plan to burn the Koran drew criticism on Thursday from U.S. President Barack Obama, who warned it could provoke al Qaeda suicide bombings and other Islamist violence.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Jones directly on Thursday to urge him not to go ahead, a Pentagon official said.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates had expressed “grave concern” in the brief telephone call with Jones that the Koran burning “would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
A crowd, estimated at 10,000 by a government official, poured out of mosques into the streets of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan in Afghanistan’s northeast, after special prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Several hundred gathered in a Kabul northern district, and about 2,000 marched on a government building in western Farah, officials and witnesses said. There were protests in nearby Badghis in the northwest and Ghor and Herat in the west.
Similar protests over perceived desecration of Muslim symbols have led to dozens of deaths in Afghanistan in recent years, including after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad in 2005.
In eastern Nangahar, tribal chiefs threatened to attack NATO bases near the Pakistan border if Jones went ahead with the plan. “If they do this, we will attack American bases and close the highway used by convoys supplying American troops,” a cleric named Zahidullah told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Ben Gruber in GAINESVILLE, Pascal Fletcher and Kevin Gray in MIAMI, TEHRAN bureau, and Matt Spetalnick, Alister Bull, Andrew Quinn and Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Vicki Allen and Jerry Norton)