Obama renews call for religious tolerance after Koran-burning canceled
Friday, September 10, 2010; 4:36 PM
President Obama on Friday described religious tolerance as "that thing that is best in us," renewing his call for improved relations with the Muslim world a day after the pastor of a small Florida church canceled plans to burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
At a news conference focusing on the economy, Obama denied that his administration's forceful intervention - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made a personal appeal to the Gainesville pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones - had unnecessarily drawn attention to the pastor's plans.
"I hardly think we're the ones who elevated this story," he said, responding to a question. "It is - in the age of the Internet - something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we've got to take it seriously."
He noted that, because of the planned burning, "we are seeing today riots in Kabul, riots in Afghanistan, that threaten our young men and women in uniform."
Asked about strained relations with the Muslim world, Obama said the United States is "anxious generally and going through a tough time," fueling suspicion and division. "We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other," he said.
As Obama again condemned the pastor's plans, the imam behind a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero disputed Jones's claim that the two planned to meet in New York this weekend to discuss relocating the controversial development.
"I am prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said in a statement. "We have no such meeting planned at this time. Our plans for the community center have not changed. With the solemn day of September 11 upon us, I encourage everyone to take time for prayer and reflection."
A day earlier, Jones said he canceled his plans after reaching a deal to stop the construction of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. Later, after it became clear there was no deal, he said he had been misled by an imam in Florida who "clearly, clearly lied to us." Late Friday afternoon, Jones said the Koran burning would not go forward.
Muhammad Musri, the Florida imam who was trying to persuade Jones to call off the event, said Jones told him he canceled his plans because he didn't want to endanger American troops overseas, not because of a deal on the center. Musri said Jones "stretched my words" about what was said about the center, the Associated Press reported.
The disjointed exchanges are part of an odd saga that vaulted a little-known pastor to an international stage.
Few outside Gainesville had heard of Jones or his Dove World Outreach Center in late July when he announced "International Burn the Koran Day" - and it largely remained that way until this week when the planned event appeared in national news. As anger grew among Muslims worldwide and as U.S. leaders began to fear that images of Koran burning in the United States would be a recruitment tool for Islamic extremists, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warned in a statement that the move could endanger American troops abroad.
Condemnations from across the political and religious spectrums poured in, including from the Vatican, conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. By the time Jones held his news conference, Obama had weighed in, the State Department had warned traveling Americans that they could be in danger and Gates had felt compelled to ask the pastor to cancel the event.