By Krissah Thompson and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
The president addressed Jones directly during an interview Thursday on ABC.
"If he's listening, I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans; that this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance," Obama said of Jones on "Good Morning America." "We're already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat that he's making."
Demonstrations erupted in Afghanistan on Thursday as hundreds of enraged youths burned effigies, threw rocks and chanted "Death to America."
One man was fatally shot Friday by troops defending a NATO base in northern Afghanistan from an attack by enraged protesters, Reuters news service reported. Some protesters had been throwing stones at the German-run base in Badakhshan province, a provincial government spokesman told Reuters.
Iraq's senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Friday called on Muslims not to be provoked and to be tolerant toward Christians, government-sponsored al-Iraqiyah television reported.
"We are condemning and denouncing this action," another prominent Iraqi Sunni cleric, Sheikh Abdullah Hussein Aldulaymee, said during Friday prayers. "At the same time, we are evaluating the U.S. government, and American citizens' position and attitude. If this action takes place, it will send a wrong message to al-Qaeda and the other extremists to let them conduct raids against civilians, and it will mean more innocents die and more victims."
"I know very well that this [pastor] does not represent the American nation," Aldulaymee, the imam of Iraq's al-Anbar mosque, continued. "Likewise, we don't represent those who committed the attack on September 11. We also warn that we cannot control the extremists and the militias if he is going to do this."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said in a statement Thursday that a Koran burning would "inflame sentiments among Muslims throughout the world and cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace."
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States later said: "Pastor Jones's decision to cancel the event he had scheduled to burn copies of the Koran helps avoid an unnecessary inflammation of passions. . . . This is definitely a positive moment in showing America's tolerance and pluralism and should not go unappreciated in the Muslim world."
Senior Obama administration officials had hedged on how much attention to give Jones but thought they had to respond, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "The potential ripple effect here is very real," he said.
According to Jones, it was not the call from the Pentagon chief that convinced him but his perception of a deal with Rauf, the New York imam.
Jones had for days rebuffed appeals to cancel his event. But Thursday, he said that he asked God for a sign and that he considered the movement of the New York Islamic center as a message from on high.
Jones and his small church have drawn controversy before. He attracted a little attention earlier this year when he posted a sign reading "No homo mayor" in front of the church protesting the openly gay man running for mayor, and last year Jones put up a sign declaring "Islam is of the Devil" and sent children from his church to their public schools wearing T-shirts with the same message. The children were sent home, the Gainesville Sun reported.
Jones looked bewildered when he was told that no agreement had been made about the Islamic center and he repeated what he thought he had been told.
"Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision," Jones later told AP. "So as of right now we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it."
The confusion seemed to stem from a meeting Jones had with Musri, head of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. Musri, who stood beside Jones as he emotionally agreed to call off the Koran burning, said he had promised Jones only a meeting with Rauf to discuss moving the planned community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan.
"There are no written agreements," Musri said. "I feel that the imam [Rauf] is a very wise imam, and I think that now knowing that over 70 percent of the American people do not want it there, I think he is reconsidering it."
Musri said in interviews that he had not spoken to Rauf but that he had set up a meeting with him through Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan.
In a CNN interview Wednesday night, Rauf indicated that he was open to moving the proposed Islamic center from its current location two blocks from Ground Zero.
"Nothing is off the table," he said. "But we are consulting. We are talking to various people about how to do this so that we negotiate the best and the safest option."
Rauf said that if he had known the proposed site would cause so much controversy, "we certainly never would have done this."
But he warned that moving the center could foment anti-American feelings abroad.
"If we move from that location, the story will be that the radicals have taken over the discourse," he said. "The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack."
Additional calls for Rauf and his partners to move the mosque came from developer Donald Trump, who made a splashy offer to buy the building for 25 percent more than its value. It was batted down as a publicity-seeking stunt given that Rauf's partners in the development have turned down larger offers, according to reports in New York newspapers.
Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of one of the world's largest faith organizations - the World Evangelical Alliance - said Friday that the organization was grateful if Jones had called off the burning.
But, he said in a statement, "the reason Pastor Jones made this decision must give us pause. Pastor Jones made the decision based upon his understanding that he had a deal to move the proposed Mosque near ground zero. . . . This kind of deal would cause a dangerous precedent. Religious liberty and tolerance between faiths cannot be bartered."
In Gainesville, there was a sigh of relief after the Koran burning was initially called off. Safety officials had been bracing for the event and volunteers at the church had said they were expecting "several hundred people" there Saturday, including national and international media.
Regardless, Ismail ibn Ali, president of Islam on Campus, a student group at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said he hoped Rauf would not strike a deal with Jones.
"If the deal is that they move the mosque in order to stop the Koran burning, I'll be very disappointed," he said. "It ultimately ends up being a win for the Islamophobes in America."
Staff writers Annie Gowen, Michelle Boorstein, Greg Jaffe, David Nakamura, Jason Horowitz, Lisa de Moraes, Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung, research editor Alice Crites, special correspondent Othman al-Mukhtar in Anbar province in Iraq, and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.