By David Nakamura and Javed Hamdard
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 3:16 PM
KABUL - Gen. David H. Petraeus on Tuesday denounced plans by a Florida church to burn copies of the Koran this weekend, saying the demonstration could "endanger troops" and damage the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
"It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems," Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement. "Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community."
The White House also condemned the Florida church's plan, with press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterating Petraeus's contention that U.S. forces could be put in harm's way as a result. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the proposed demonstration "un-American" and said it was "inconsistent with the values of religious tolerance and religious freedom."
Habibullah, a religious leader who organized a protest Monday morning in eastern Kabul to decry the Florida church's plan, said throngs of angry men chanted, "Death to America!" and "Death to Obama!"
He said some of the protesters pelted a passing U.S. military convoy with stones.
"I stopped them," said Habibullah, who uses one name. "Otherwise they would have burned the convoy."
The Dove World Outreach Center, a 50-member evangelical Christian church in Gainesville, Fla., announced plans to burn the Islamic holy books on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. At the Kabul protest, residents burned an effigy of Dove World pastor Terry Jones.
"I am very concerned by the potential repercussions of the possible Koran burning," Petraeus said. "Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul yesterday. Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen backed that warning Tuesday. He said that any burning of Korans would strongly contradict "all the values we stand for and fight for."
In Florida, Jones rejected the warnings and said his church plans to go through with its "International Burn a Koran Day."
Jones said he agrees with Petraeus that burning copies of the Koran could provoke violent opposition, but he argued that the United States should stop apologizing for its actions and bowing to kings, the Associated Press reported. He apparently referred to a London summit meeting in April 2009 when President Obama greeted Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah II, now 86, by clasping his hand and bowing.
Jones told CNN that "we have firmly made up our mind" to carry out the Koran burnings, "but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it." He said his group is "weighing the situation." He added: "Our message is a message of warning to the radical element of Islam."
The 58-year-old pastor told AP he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a pistol strapped to his hip.
NATO forces are in the midst of a surge of troop levels in Afghanistan to root out Taliban insurgents in increasingly dangerous areas in the south and east. At least 500 foreign troops have been killed in the country this year, compared with 512 in 2009, the highest annual toll in the nine-year-old war.
"Images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan - and around the world - to inflame public opinion and incite violence," Petraeus said. "Such images could, in fact, be used as were the photos from [Abu Ghraib]. And this would, again, put our troopers and civilians in jeopardy and undermine our efforts to accomplish the critical mission here in Afghanistan." Petraeus referred to the prison in Iraq that gained notoriety when the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards was revealed in 2004.
In a separate statement denouncing the Florida church's plan to burn Korans, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said: "The United States government in no way condones such acts of disrespect against the religion of Islam, and is deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups."
It said Obama made clear in a June 2009 speech in Cairo that he considers it part of his presidential responsibility to "fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they occur."
The statement added: "Americans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds reject the offensive initiative by this small group in Florida. A great number of American voices are protesting the hurtful statements made by this organization. Numerous interfaith and religious groups in America are actively working to counter this kind of ignorance and misinformation that is offensive to so many people in the U.S. and around the world."
The embassy recalled that Obama's envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Rashad Hussain, visited Afghanistan a few days ago to convey a "message of friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding between the U.S. and Muslim communities all around the world."
Enayatullah Balegh, an imam at the Pol-e-Khishti mosque in Kabul, said Afghan religious leaders hope the United States government will find a way to bar the church from burning the holy book.
"If they decide to burn the holy Koran, I will announce jihad against these Christians and infidels," he said Tuesday. "We will defend the holy Koran."
Hamdard is a special correspondent.