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Obama urges Fla. pastor to call off Koran burning

By William Branigin
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 1:57 PM

President Obama urged a Florida pastor Thursday to call off a plan to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, warning that such a "stunt" would amount to a "recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda" and would endanger Americans.

Obama added his voice to a chorus of criticism of the proposed Koran-burning in an interview broadcast Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America" program. Amid continuing protests in countries such as Afghanistan, he urged Terry Jones, pastor of a small evangelical church in Gainesville, Fla., to listen to his "better angels" and cancel his plan to burn copies of the Muslim holy book on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"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. "And as a very practical matter, as commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan. We're already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat that he's making."

Obama added: "Look, this is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda. You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities."

The State Department later issued a worldwide travel alert, warning U.S. citizens "of the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations in many countries" in response to the planned Koran burning.

"Demonstrations, some violent, have already taken place in several countries, including Afghanistan and Indonesia, in response to media reports of the church's plans," the State Department said Thursday. "The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high."

Obama said he hopes Jones "listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he's engaging in."

Asked whether he feels helpless or angry about having to deal with the fallout from the actions of a single pastor with a few dozen followers, Obama acknowledged, "It is frustrating." He noted that "we are a government of laws, and so we have to abide by those laws. And my understanding is that he can be cited for public burning, but that's the extent of the laws that we have available to us." The interview with "Good Morning America" was conducted Wednesday.

Jones told USA Today that he had not been contacted by the White House, State Department or Pentagon about his plan, the paper reported Thursday. If he were, "that would cause us to definitely think it over," he was quoted as saying. "That's what we're doing now. I don't think a call from them is something we would ignore."

By weighing in on the controversy, Obama joined critics from across the political and religious spectrum in condemning Jones's plan.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential election, said Thursday on Twitter: "Pastor Jones' threats to burn the Koran will put American service men/women in danger - for their sake please don't do it!"

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also have made similar pleas in recent days.

The prospect that Jones and his church might ignore the entreaties, however, sets up a series of conflicting images on Saturday, as senior Obama administration officials fan out to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary. Vice President Biden is scheduled to be in New York, Obama at the Pentagon and first lady Michelle Obama in Pennsylvania -- potentially on a split-screen with the Florida event. Clinton joked earlier in the week that if Jones insisted on burning Korans, perhaps the news media could refuse to cover it.

Obama's comments came as American religious leaders lobbied behind the scenes, reaching out to Jones personally in efforts to persuade him to change his mind.

Muslim leaders at home and abroad also voiced objections to Jones's planned "International Burn a Koran Day" on Sept. 11.

The U.S. branch of the Ahmadi sect, a self-described "reformist" movement within Islam that has come under attack from Islamist extremists in Pakistan, urged Muslims to respond to the planned Koran burning "with patience, prayer and peaceful protest."

The group, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, said it intends to donate at least one copy of the Koran for every one that is burned by Jones's Dove World Outreach Center. The group said the Korans would be donated to libraries, college campuses and interfaith groups by all of its 70 chapters in the United States.

Separately, Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, a leading Canada-based Muslim scholar who strongly opposes Islamist extremism, urged Obama to intervene to stop the planned burning on grounds that it amounts to hate speech and incitement.

"A handful of individuals . . . cannot be given the right to flippantly play about with peaceful coexistence, and their so-called sentiments cannot be preferred over global peace," Qadri wrote in a letter to Obama. "Such an action should be stopped by the government of the United States at any cost; allowing it does not fall within the scope of freedom of expression, and it is also against the concept of basic human rights."

Qadri, who issued a 600-page religious edict, or fatwa, in March that denounced terrorism and suicide bombing as un-Islamic, called on Obama "to ensure that freedom of speech does not transgress the boundaries of hate, crime and incitement." He expressed alarm that burning the Koran could not only "neutralize the effect" of his fatwa, but could "take us back many years in our struggle against extremism and terrorism."

The president of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, also wrote to Obama asking him to stop the bonfire.

In Gainesville, Mayor Craig Lowe condemned the "offensive behavior" of Jones's church.

"The Dove World Outreach Center is a tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community," he said in a statement. "They are opposed to Gainesville's true character."

He asked residents to avoid the church's cross streets on Saturday and to watch for suspicious behavior, the Associated Press reported.

Jones's neighbors in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, also have said they disapprove, AP said. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city are planning inclusive events, and some intend to read from the Koran at their own weekend services.

Meanwhile, the issue continued to resonate abroad, with a growing list of Muslim countries joining the condemnation of the planned book-burning.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, called it a "shameful act which is incompatible with the principles of tolerance and coexistence."

In Pakistan, about 200 lawyers and civil society members marched and burned a U.S. flag in the central Pakistani city of Multan, demanding that Washington halt the burning of the Muslim holy book, AP reported.

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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