Obama admonishes Florida pastor to call off plans to burn Quran, calling it dangerous ’stunt’

By Nancy Benac, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Obama admonishes pastor to call off Quran ’stunt’

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sternly admonished a Florida pastor Thursday and appealed to him to call off plans to torch the Quran, saying Saturday’s planned protest on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks was a dangerous “stunt” that could imperil U.S. troops abroad and incite suicide bombers on American soil.

American Muslim leaders urged members to remain calm if the pastor doesn’t back down from a threat that already has inflamed passions around the globe. Interpol, the international police organization, issued an alert to its 188 member-countries warning of a “strong likelihood” of violent attacks if the burn goes forward.

FBI agents met with the Rev. Terry Jones at his Dove Outreach Center, an independent church in Gainesville with about 50 members. At issue are his plans to stage an “International Burn-a-Koran Day” on the ninth anniversary of the terror attacks.

Jones planned a public response to the president’s request and the FBI visit later Thursday, said church spokesman Wayne Sapp.

Obama, speaking both to an audience of millions and to Jones in particular, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that: “I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he’s engaging in.”

Jones told USA Today he hadn’t been contacted by the White House, State Department or Pentagon, but that if such a call came, “That would cause us to definitely think it over.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said there were discussions about whether to contact Jones directly. But he added that it would have been hard for the pastor to miss the clear pronouncements from Obama and his military leaders that burning Islam’s holy book would endanger American lives.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell said reaching out directly to Jones was “not an easy decision” because it could provoke other people, “who all they want is a call from so-and-so.”

Obama made a point of framing his remarks “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,” Obama said. He said the Quran-burning would be a “recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida. … This could increase the recruitment of individuals who’d be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities.”

In Afghanistan, hundreds of angry Afghans burned an American flag and chanted “Death to the Christians” to protest the planned Quran burning.

American Muslim leaders, for their part, urged Muslims not to retaliate for the burning, if it happens, or for any other Sept. 11 provocations, no matter how hurt they may feel. They said that reacting with anger or violence would only reinforce the stereotypes behind a recent spike in anti-Muslim incidents.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim extremists commandeered three airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth airliner crashed in Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers overpowered the men who had taken over the plane. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed.

“The best way to respond to Quran burnings is Quran readings, recitations, teaching, learning, sharing, living the best of the principles found therein,” said Zaheer Ali, a New York Muslim leader and doctoral student at Columbia University.

The president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has sent a letter to Obama asking him to prevent the fire.

But Obama, admitting to some frustration, said the law offers little recourse against the pastor’s plan.

“My understanding is that he can be cited for public burning,” Obama said. “But that’s the extent of the laws that we have available to us.”

“We still have to make sure that we’re following the laws. And that’s part of what I love about this country.”

Beyond safety concerns, Gibbs said, the threatened Quran-burning has the potential to set back Obama’s efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world.

Almost lost in all the focus on the potential Quran burning, Obama issued best wishes to Muslims worldwide Thursday on their celebration of Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of fasting and prayer known as Ramadan.

Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll in New York, Antonio Gonzales, Mitch Stacy, Curt Anderson and Kelli Kennedy in Florida, and Kimberly Dozier and Robert Reid in Kabul contributed to this report.

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