Florida pastor Terry Jones’s Koran burning has far-reaching effect
By Kevin Sieff,
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The charred Koran that inspired a deadly attack and violent protests across Afghanistan now sits in a plastic Home Depot bag in a storage room here in a run-down church. It has been stashed atop a pile of cardboard boxes, next to a tattered pair of boxing gloves. It still smells of kerosene.
The Rev. Terry Jones had threatened to burn the text in September, in the midst of a controversy over plans to develop an Islamic center near the site of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in Manhattan. He was eventually dissuaded through the pleas of religious leaders and government officials, including a phone call from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
But when Jones announced in January that he was going to “put the Koran on trial,” he said he didn’t hear a single complaint. On March 20, Jones dressed in a judicial robe and ordered a copy of the Koran to be torched in a portable fire pit.
“It’s like people forgot about us,” Jones said Saturday. “But we kept doing what we do.”
The world was reminded of the 30-person Christian congregation at Dove World Outreach Center on Friday, when a mob incited by the burning of the Koran attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees. On Saturday, related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.
Jones, 59, had considered the possibility that burning the text might elicit a violent response and that innocent people might be killed. In his characteristic drawl — a slow-motion delivery that seems incongruous with the church’s fiery rhetoric — the pastor said the church also debated whether to shred the book, shoot it or dunk it in water instead of burning it.
He has been accused by those who intervened in September of breaking his promise not to burn the Koran — a point he concedes. “If you want to be technical,” he said, “I guess we broke our word.”
He added, “We thought twice about it.”
But in the end, his desire to shed light on what he calls a “dangerous book” won out. The Koran was burned in a spectacle streamed live on the Internet. To reach out to Muslims overseas, Jones included Arabic subtitles.
“For some of them,” he said, “it could be an awakening.”
Although there was initially little talk of the burning in the United States, the death threats poured in, Jones said. Last Monday, he said, the FBI told him over the telephone that a $2.4 million bounty had been placed on his head in Pakistan.
The FBI also asked where Jones had put what remained of the burned Islamic holy book. He told them it was in a storage closet.
In September, Jones drew international attention and a media frenzy. But on Saturday the grounds of the church in this college town, home to the University of Florida, were quiet. A string of signs on the front lawn proclaimed “Islam is of the Devil.” A half-dozen people were in the church with Jones, including his 29-year-old son, Luke, during the interview.
“We’re not big debaters. We’re not very well-educated,” Luke Jones said. “We’re just simple people trying to do the right thing.”
The Gainesville city attorney in September began the process of changing the fire code, to prevent Jones from burning the Koran outdoors. So Jones staged the March spectacle indoors while a fire department official observed.
Far from the Gainesville church, those who remained in contact with Jones after his threats in September are now asking themselves why they remained quiet.
“I’m a bit upset with myself,” said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, who saw Jones in Washington on March 3. “But he gave no indication that he was planning this.”
During his months out of the spotlight, Jones flew to California to protest the massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt. He also wrestled with a more personal problem: His anti-Islam platform had been great for publicity but bad for church finances.
The church’s membership had plummeted. So had its income from selling furniture on eBay. The church’s Internet service provider and insurance provider canceled their services.
Jones said the church has received nearly $20,000 in donations since August, along with letters of encouragement from supporters around the world. But that hasn’t been enough to cover operating costs.
The pastor said he is trying to sell the property and move, perhaps to the Tampa area. “I know that Gainesville would be more than happy to get rid of us,” he said.
Staff writers Annie Gowen and Michelle Boorstein in Washington contributed to this report.