The Florida minister who organized a Quran burning to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11 attacks now says his church will "never" hold such an event. Terry Jones flew to New York on Friday in hopes of meeting with developers planning to build a mosque near Ground Zero. That meeting never took place, but Jones did appear on NBC-TV's Today Show Saturday. He said his 50-member church would not hold the event as planned but that it had succeeded in exposing what he called the "dangerous" and "very radical" element of Islam.
Earlier this week Jones told reporters he might call off his Dove World Outreach Center's "International Burn a Quran Day" event if he received a personal appeal from either the White House or the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates obliged on Thursday, phoning the 58-year-old pastor in Gainesville, where he runs the small church on a 20-acre compound. Gates appealed to Jones over security concerns.
Hours later, Jones said he would cancel the event, but appeared to renege in TV appearances on Friday morning news shows, saying he would not go ahead with the burning if he can meet Saturday with the New York imam planning to build a mosque at Ground Zero.
According to The Washington Post, that New York Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his partner in the project, Manhattan real estate developer Sharif el-Gamal, said that they had made no deal to stop their plans and had not, in fact, spoken to Jones or with Muhammad Musri, a Florida imam working with Jones to reach a deal to end the Quran-burning event.
President Barack Obama increased Jones' newsmaker status earlier this week when he condemned the Quran burning as a "recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda." Friday, in a nationally televised news conference, ABC's Jake Tapper asked the president whether he was concerned that he was elevating a fringe figure by addressing him.
Obama responded: "The idea that we would burn the sacred texts of someone else's religion is contrary to what this country stands for. It's contrary to what this nation was founded on. My hope is that this individual prays on it and refrains from doing it. But I'm also commander in chief. And we are seeing today riots in Kabul, riots in Afghanistan that threaten our young men and women in uniform. So we have an obligation to send the message that this kind of behavior and threat of action put our men and women in harm's way."
Washington's concern about Jones' activities stems from that straightforward security threat. Earlier this week, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, took the unusual step of condemning the event publicly. He also phoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss potential fallout. In the past, reports of a U.S. soldier burning a Quran (which turned out to be untrue) led to riots and violence. Earlier this week, the State Department ordered a review of embassy security worldwide to ward off Muslim reaction if Jones and his church followers set Qurans on fire.
While religious freedom advocates have accused Muslims of holding their values hostage (if you burn them, we will burn you), Jones too has attempted to hold hostage religious and civic leaders over his planned stunt.
"We only did it because we felt there needed to be an outcry against Islam, because Islam is presenting itself as a religion of peace," Jones told reporters earlier this week. Yet Dove World Outreach Center has a history of provocative protests and has posted signs in the past on its property reading, "Islam is of the Devil." It also joined Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas congregation headed by Fred Phelps, in controversial protests of homosexuality.
At the same time that Jones appears to be entertaining calls from the nation's top political and national security leaders, it's worth noting that longstanding calls for Jones to stop the event from leading Christian organizations went unheeded.
In July, the National Association of Evangelicals called for a halt to plans for "International Burn A Quran Day," saying, "Plans to burn Islam's holy book on the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11 shows disrespect for Muslims and would only exacerbate tensions in Christian-Muslim relations worldwide."
Open Doors, a California-based advocacy group for persecuted Christians, also publicly demanded a halt earlier this month. The organization's president, Carl Moeller, called it "a disaster on two fronts: It violates the command of Jesus to love our neighbor and it would likely cause Christians worldwide to be more vilified and persecuted."
The British-based group Barnabas Fund, which works in predominantly Muslim countries, also decried the event, as did Bob Blincoe, head of the Muslim outreach group Frontiers. In a blog post on Thursday, Blincoe said he had emailed Jones, telling him, "It's not too late for you to take counsel from the Christian community and change your mind."
On Thursday, prominent local Florida pastors also joined the chorus, telling Jones that "pastors and Christian leaders have the opportunity to model civility in the public square and reclaim the purpose and mission of the church." The pastors told Jones that Americans "have freedom to perform acts with which others disagree or deem despicable, but our citizenship as Christians calls us to a higher standard-one of love and respect for all humanity-which supersedes our 'rights.'"
The 10 pastors who signed the statement represent some of the state's largest churches, and its most conservative, including Bob Coy of Calvary Chapel and Tullian Tchividjian of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, both in Fort Lauderdale.
But the pastors acknowledged what U.S. political and church leaders already know: That whether or not the burning ceremony in Gainesville had gone forward, the damage already was done. "The mere threat of carrying out such an insensitive and uncivil act has already caused considerable damage to the reputation of the Christian church, the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus, as well as to interfaith relations among good people-and to the common good-around the world," they wrote.