WASHINGTON/GAINESVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday appealed to Americans to respect the “inalienable” right of religious freedom and expressed hope a Florida Christian preacher would abandon a plan to burn the Koran that could deeply hurt the United States abroad.
News of the plan has already outraged many Muslims around the world and triggered violent protests in Afghanistan in which one protester was shot dead.
“This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters ... you don’t play games with that,” Obama told a Washington news conference in which he included an earnest appeal for religious tolerance in the United States to preserve multi-faith harmony.
Calling himself a person who “relies heavily on my Christian faith,” Obama said he was nevertheless respectful of people of different faiths, be they Muslims or others.
“They are still good people and they are my neighbors and they are my friends and they are fighting alongside us in our battles,” he said.
Pastor Terry Jones of the tiny, little-known Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida has backed off a threat to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on Saturday.
But while the bewhiskered fundamentalist preacher kept people guessing about his precise intentions, a fellow evangelist acting as a spokesman, K.A. Paul, said he could “guarantee” Jones would not go ahead with the event.
“There will be no Koran burning tomorrow,” said Paul, who appeared with Jones. Paul presents himself as a “spiritual” trouble-shooter who once advised former Liberian President Charles Taylor, currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes.
Referring to “the individual down in Florida,” Obama noted the pastor’s Koran-burning plan had already caused anti-American riots in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are in a grueling war against Muslim Taliban militants.
“And so we’ve got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behavior or threats of action put our young men and women in harm’s way. And it’s also the best imaginable recruiting tool for al Qaeda,” he said.
“It is in the age of the Internet something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we have to take it seriously,” Obama added.
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. Demonstrations later spread to the capital, Kabul, and at least four other provinces.
Obama was asked by a reporter about a direct telephone appeal made on Thursday by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Jones asking him not to go ahead with the Koran burning.
“My hope is that this individual prays on it and refrains from it,” the president said.
Jones has said he will not proceed with the planned event on Saturday if he can meet in New York with Muslim leaders seeking to build an Islamic center and mosque near the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
He told reporters he was still hopeful such a meeting would take place, even though he had not heard from the New York imam involved in the cultural center project, Feisal Abdul Rauf.
Opponents of the New York center building plan say it is insensitive to the families of the victims of the 2001 events.
Jones, who said Jesus would approve of his “Burn a Koran Day” as a reprisal for Islamist terrorism, has said he will fly to New York later on Friday, but his plans remained unclear.
Iman Rauf said on Friday he has no meeting planned with the Florida preacher.
“I am prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace. We have no such meeting planned at this time. Our plans for the community center have not changed,” he said in a statement.
Sharif el-Gamal, project developer for the New York mosque, said in a statement it was untrue the center was to be moved.
Obama said at the news conference that he recognized “the extraordinary sensitivities” surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
But, addressing the strong opposition to the building of the Islamic cultural center and mosque at the so-called Ground Zero site, Obama said it should be possible to erect a mosque there, or a building representing any other kind of religion.
“This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights. One of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely,” Obama said.
“We are not at war against Islam, we are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam and have falsely used the banner of Islam,” he added.
“You know, we have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other. And I will do everything that I can as long as I’m president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God. And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.”
In Jones’ initial announcement on Thursday calling off the Koran-burning, the pastor said he had obtained a deal to move the location of the planned Islamic center.
But a Florida imam who met with Jones on Thursday, Muhammad Musri, said afterward he had only agreed to make contact with the New York center organizers, set up a meeting and make the case for shifting the site. He said Jones had “stretched and exaggerated” his statements.
In Afghanistan on Friday, a crowd an official estimated at 10,000 poured out of mosques into the streets of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan in the northeast, after special prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim fasting month Ramadan.
One protester was shot dead when a smaller group attacked a German-run NATO base in Faizabad, hurling stones at the outpost, a provincial government spokesman said.
He said Afghan security forces rushed to the scene to restore order and three police were hurt when hit by stones. The Faizabad protests died down later.
Several hundred people gathered in a district of Kabul, 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 Berlin, Emma Jones, the estranged daughter of Pastor Jones, told Spiegel Online she had e-mailed her father urging him to drop the plan to burn the Koran.
“As a daughter, I see the good-natured core inside him. But I think he needs help,” said Jones, who lives in Germany.
“I think he has gone mad.”
Additional reporting by Washington Newsroom, Daniel Trotta in New York; Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; Paul Carrel in Cologne; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jerry Norton