MIAMI (Reuters) - The Florida Christian preacher who has received world fame and condemnation by threatening to burn a pile of Korans demands strict obedience and unpaid labor from his tiny flock and sells used furniture out of his sanctuary, those who know him say.
He was ejected from a church he headed in Germany by his own followers. Even his daughter says she believes he has lost his mind in his fanatical crusade against Islam.
Terry Jones, a previously obscure 58-year-old fundamentalist pastor with slicked-back gray hair and a shaggy mustache, has gained a global pulpit with his proposed burning of Korans, the Islamic holy book.
His estranged daughter, Emma Jones, called the church a cult that forced obedience through “mental violence” and threats of God’s punishment. She said he ignored her emails urging him not to burn Korans.
“I think he has gone mad,” she told Germany’s Spiegel Online.
President Barack Obama seemed unwilling to bolster Jones’ sudden fame when he referred to him in a news conference on Friday as “the individual down in Florida” without mentioning his name.
But Obama said Koran-burning could badly damage the United States abroad and endanger the lives of Americans.
Jones’ nondenominational Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has only a few dozen members.
And until the former hotel manager launched “International Burn a Koran Day” — which is now on hold — he was relatively unknown except to his Gainesville neighbors and his former congregation in Cologne, Germany.
His detractors describe a controlling man who preached that working for his obscure church was the only route to salvation and that leaving would bring damnation.
Dove World members live in properties owned by the church or by Jones and his wife Sylvia, and work 40 hours a week as volunteers packing and selling used furniture and merchandise with anti-Islam slogans over the Internet, the Gainesville Sun newspaper said.
Dove World last year lost part of the tax-exempt status that U.S. churches enjoy when the local appraiser determined that part of the property was used as a for-profit business and was therefore subject to taxation.
The church in Gainesville also ran an academy where a half dozen live-in students underwent a three-year program aimed at breaking their pride and teaching them “to humble themselves not only under God’s mighty hand but under the hand of man as well,” the Gainesville Sun in a report last year quoted Sylvia Jones as saying.
The newspaper in a 2009 report posted an academy rule book, which it said was outdated, that described the school’s strict regime.
Students had to follow orders, ask permission to speak, submit to weekly weigh-ins and room inspections, and avoid sweets, alcohol and restaurants, it said. They were forbidden to have romantic relationships or phone or visit family or friends, even if it meant missing weddings and funerals.
Since 2001, Jones had divided his time between Florida and Germany. Parishioners ousted Jones in 2008 from the Christian Community of Cologne, the church he ran in Germany, where he lived for decades. He was booted out because of his radicalism and suspicion of financial abuses, Spiegel Online said.
Andrew Schafer, a Protestant Church official responsible for monitoring sects in the Cologne region, said Jones seemed to have a “delusional personality” and brainwashed his flock.
Its members, who numbered between 800 and 1,000, were required to work in his food bank charities, he said.
Jones seemed to consider Cologne “a city of Hell that was founded by Nero’s mother,” and thought Germany was “a key country for the supposed Christian revival of Europe,” Schafer told Spiegel Online.
Jones demonized homosexuals — including the gay mayor of Gainesville — and increasingly targeted Islam in his sermons, preaching that Muslims were trying to take over the United States and impose Sharia law.
Children in his Florida congregation were sent to school wearing T-shirts that proclaimed “Islam is of the Devil,” until school officials banned the shirts.
Jones’ son, Luke Jones, told reporters the group’s aim in burning Korans was “to confront a religion which we believe is leading people to hell.”
“Think of me as crazy. Think of us as crazy. That’s up to you.”
Luke Jones and at least one other church follower have taken to wearing holstered handguns on their hips after death threats against them.