GAINESVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - An obscure U.S. Christian pastor whose plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11 has sparked an international outcry said on Wednesday he would go ahead with the event despite warnings it would endanger American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pastor Terry Jones, leader of a tiny Protestant church in Gainesville, Florida, which campaigns against what it calls “radical Islam,” is facing a barrage of calls from U.S. government, military and religious leaders, and from abroad, to cancel plans to publicly burn Islam’s holy book.
“We are not convinced that backing down is the right thing,” Jones, a gray-haired, mustachioed preacher and author of a book titled “Islam is of the Devil,” told a crowd of reporters in a brief statement made in the grassy yard in front of his stone-and-metal church.
“A burning of the Koran is to call attention that something is wrong,” said Jones, wearing a gray suit and a tie.
“We need to stand up and confront terrorism,” he added, referring to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by militant Islamist group al Qaeda.
The planned Koran-burning on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks has attracted worldwide condemnation and touched off protests in Afghanistan and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Top U.S. military commanders have warned the event could trigger violent retaliation against American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We would of course be very, very moved and very sad by that, but we would not feel responsible ... We are not going to be controlled by fears and threats,” Jones later told CNN.
Law enforcement officials say Jones has already received death threats from suspected extremists, a development which had been anticipated in August by the FBI.
An FBI intelligence bulletin dated August 19 assessed “with high confidence that, as with past incidents perceived as acts of desecration against Islam, extremist actors will continue to threaten or attempt to harm the leaders, organizers or attendees of the (Koran burning) event,” according to an FBI document seen by Reuters.
“It may also inspire retaliatory attacks against U.S. facilities overseas,” the FBI bulletin said, but it added the agency had no information at that time to indicate that a specific attack had been planned.
The planned event comes near the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and amid heightened tensions in the United States over a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks in New York. Opponents of the building plan say it is insensitive to families of the victims of the attacks.
With anger growing in Afghanistan over the proposed Koran-burning, Afghan police went on alert to guard against more protests. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply disturbed” and the Vatican also joined a growing chorus of global criticism.
Jones said that despite the worldwide outcry, he had received phone calls of support, including some from serving members in the U.S. armed forces.
One of his associate pastors carried a holstered gun.
The pastor’s son, Luke Jones, said the church had about 200 Korans to burn — some sent by supporters, the rest purchased. “We want to confront a religion we believe is leading people to hell ... Think of us as crazy. That’s up to you,” he said.
An imam from a local Florida Muslim group was present during Jones’ statement and later entered the church to urge him to call off the event, quoting Bible verses and encouraging him to follow Jesus’ teaching of “love your enemy”.
“I strongly believe at the end of the day he will make the right step and call off the event” Muhammad Musri, head of the Islamic Society for Central Florida, told reporters.
In Washington, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it would announce on Thursday an initiative, called “Learn, Don’t Burn”, to distribute 200,000 Koran texts to replace the 200 copies that the Florida church plans to burn.
Official criticism of the event intensified.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates “strongly endorsed” the view of his military commanders that any Koran-burning plan could endanger U.S. lives.
“We hope that the world will appreciate that this is the action of a very small fringe group and does not represent the views of the United States or Americans as a whole,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, whose country has nearly 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, also condemned the event.
On Tuesday, several high-ranking Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had spoken out against it, and leading Christian and Jewish leaders also voiced outrage.
Sarah Palin, a critic of the planned Islamic center in New York, called on the pastor to stand down on Wednesday.
In a Facebook posting, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate called the Koran burning “insensitive and an unnecessary provocation - much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.”
Authorities in Gainesville say they are tightening security for Saturday’s action at Jones’ church, which is called the Dove World Outreach Center. Local police say it is believed to have only around 30 members.
U.S. officials say that First Amendment constitutional rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly and religion prevent them from prohibiting the event.
But local authorities have warned Jones he would violate city ordinances if he went ahead without proper authorization. City officials have denied his request for a burn permit.
In Iran, the planned Koran-burning drew protest from a leading cleric. “I along with 1.5 billion Muslims ... condemn this brutal and savage spirit ... I warn about its consequences,” Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi-Golpaygani told Iran’s Students News Agency ISNA.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, David Alexander and Sue Pleming in Washington, Jane Sutton in Miami, Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, Paul Tait in Kabul, Brian Rohan and Claudia Doerries in Berlin, James Mackenzie in Rome; writing by Kevin Gray; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anthony Boadle