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Religious leaders condemn plan to burn Koran on Sept. 11

By Tara Bahrampour and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; A3

The plan by a tiny Florida church to burn Korans on Sept. 11 is drawing condemnation from top U.S. officials and religious leaders, including the White House, the State Department and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who warned Tuesday that it could endanger U.S. troops in the Muslim world.

At the Dove World Outreach Center, a 50-member evangelical Christian church in Gainesville, the Rev. Terry Jones told CNN on Tuesday that he is "taking the general's words very serious" and that "we are definitely praying about it," leaving open the possibility that the event could be canceled. But he also said the plan is firm and is meant as "a warning to radical Islam" that "if you attack us, we will attack you."

The 58-year-old pastor told the Associated Press that he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a pistol strapped to his hip.

The planned burning of the holy book of Islam comes at a time of rising expression of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide, and many fear that it will harm U.S. relations with the Muslim world as NATO troop levels increase in Afghanistan.

Already, repercussions have begun. On Monday in Kabul, protesters burned Jones in effigy and chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Obama."

In Washington, two dozen Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from across the country gathered Tuesday for an Emergency Faith Leaders Summit on anti-Muslim sentiment.

"Religious leaders cannot stand by in silence when things like this are happening," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington, said at a news conference. Burning the Koran, he warned, could be "taken by some as the real story of America, and it is not."

Actions and hate speech against Muslims "bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a former lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals.

Said the Rev. Gerald Durley, pastor at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta: "From a Christian perspective, this is not what we stand for. This is a fringe group of individuals."

The circle of condemnation widened Tuesday to include White House spokesman Robert Gibbs; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; her spokesman P.J. Crowley, who called the planned burning "un-American"; and Petraeus, who compared the action to the behavior of the Taliban and said it could undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul" on Monday, said Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. "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."

Clinton added her disapproval at a dinner Tuesday evening in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths," she said.

Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, said the faith leaders' meeting was set up two weeks ago, "when it started to become clear to us that things were getting out of control." Although the recent controversy has been "whipped up by a few people," she said, "I don't think it's going to go away quickly."

More than 9,000 people have joined a Facebook page called International Burn a Koran Day, which includes support for and criticism of the action.

Religious leaders and Muslim organizations met with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday to urge him to speak out against recent anti-Muslim incidents, such as the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York, and to prosecute some suspects on a federal level.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said that Holder "reiterated the department's strong commitment to prosecuting hate crimes."

Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy organization, said such actions are necessary to counteract a growing feeling of unease among Muslims in the United States.

"There is an increasing sense of fear and anxiety, even more than after 9/11," she said, adding that hostility that seemed to stay below the surface in recent years now "seems to have gone mainstream."

Gainesville, a city of 100,000, is bracing for a media onslaught this weekend because of the planned burning. Last year, when the Dove church posted a sign saying that "Islam is of the devil," faith leaders there largely ignored Jones and his small congregation.

This year, interfaith gatherings are planned for Wednesday and Friday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, and some religious communities will read from the Jewish, Islamic and Christian scriptures on Saturday and Sunday.

Ramzy Kilic, regional director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Tampa, said that he will participate in the interfaith events but that he thinks the best approach is to ignore Jones. "He just wants to provoke the Muslim community," he said. "Why give him attention? No one pays attention to the drunkard walking down the street."

Kilic said that although he appreciates the interfaith efforts, he wants to see more widespread condemnation of the planned event. "Let's say this was a Muslim burning a copy of the Bible - the country would be turned inside out," he said.

A request by Dove for an unspecific bonfire permit was denied because it went against city code, said Deputy Chief Tim Hayes of Gainesville Fire Rescue.

The outcry over the planned burning is similar to the Muhammad cartoon scandal that led to international protests in 2006, but there are some important differences, Muslim leaders said.

At that time, Khera said, "you had even Danish public officials who were defending the cartoonist. Here, I haven't seen any public official . . . come out in support of the Koran burning."

bahrampourt@washpost.com boorsteinm@washpost.com

Correspondent David Nakamura and special correspondent Javed Hamdard, both in Kabul, contributed to this report.

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