GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The leader of a small Florida church that espouses anti-Islam philosophy said Wednesday he was determined to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, despite pressure from the White House, religious leaders and others to call it off.
Pastor Terry Jones said at a press conference that he has received a lot of encouragement for his protest, with supporters mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his Gainesville church of about 50 followers. The plan is to incinerated the Qurans in a bonfire Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11.
"As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing," said Jones, who took no questions.
Jones said previously he has received more than 100 death threats and has started carrying a .40-caliber pistol since announcing his plan to burn the book Muslims consider the word of God and insist be treated with the utmost respect. The 58-year-old minister proclaimed in July that he would stage "International Burn-a-Quran Day."
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, took the rare step of a military leader taking a position on a domestic matter when he warned in an e-mail to The Associated Press that "images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence."
Petraeus spoke Wednesday with Afghan President Karzai about the matter, according to a military spokesman Col. Erik Gunhus. "They both agreed that burning of a Quran would undermine our effort in Afghanistan, jeopardize the safety of coalition troopers and civilians," Gunhus said, and would "create problems for our Afghan partners ... as it likely would be Afghan police and soldiers who would have to deal with any large demonstrations."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the pastor's plans were outrageous and urged Jones to cancel the event.
"It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world's attention, but that's the world we live in right now," Clinton said in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is unfortunate, it is not who we are," she said.
Jones gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of his church declaring "Islam is of the Devil." But his Quran-burning idea attracted wider attention. It drew rebukes from Muslim nations and at home as an emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic center near the ground zero site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
His actions likely would be protected by the First Amendment's right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that speech deemed offensive to many people, even the majority of people, cannot be suppressed by the government unless it is clearly directed to intimidate someone or amounts to an incitement to violence, legal experts said.
The Vatican denounced the planned Quran burning as "outrageous and grave."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting Tuesday with religious leaders to discuss recent attacks on Muslims and mosques around the U.S. called the planned burning idiotic and dangerous, according to a Justice Department official. The official requested anonymity because the meeting was private.
David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Barack Obama told CNN Wednesday morning: "The reverend may have the right to do what he's doing but it's not right. It's not consistent with our values ... I hope that his conscience and his good sense will take hold."
Staffan de Mistura, head of the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, expressed concern and outrage "in the strongest possible terms," and added, "If such an abhorrent act were to be implemented, it would only contribute to fueling the arguments of those who are indeed against peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan."
Local religious leaders in this progressive Florida city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus also criticized the lanky preacher with the bushy white mustache. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city have mobilized to plan inclusive events — some will read from the Quran at their own weekend services. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the church Saturday.
Gainesville's new mayor, Craig Lowe, who during his campaign became the target of a Jones-led protest because he is openly gay, has declared Sept. 11 Interfaith Solidarity Day in the city.
The fire department has denied Jones a required burn permit, but he said lawyers have told him he has the right to burn the Qurans, with or without the city's permission.
In Afghanistan, Jones' planned burning continued to provoke outrage.
"It is the duty of Muslims to react," said Mohammad Mukhtar, a cleric and candidate for the Afghan parliament in the Sept. 18 election. "When their holy book Quran gets burned in public, then there is nothing left. If this happens, I think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world they will be killed."
Kabul resident, Rajab Ali said, "If this (burning of the Quran) happens there will be chaos in Afghanistan and being a Muslim, if we don't defend the Quran then what else we can do?"
The Quran, according to Jones, is "evil" because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
Muslims consider the Quran along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad to be sacred. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect Quran is deeply offensive.
Jones' Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare against satanic forces.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Robert Reid in Kabul, Curt Anderson in Miami and Matthew Lee, Mark Sherman and Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.