Obama urges Fla. pastor to call off Koran burning

By William Branigin
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 4:16 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.

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