GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The leader of a small Florida church that espouses anti-Islam philosophy said he was still praying about whether go through with his plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, which the White House, religious leaders and others are pressuring him to call off.
The Rev. Terry Jones said he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip but still did not back off his plan Tuesday to burn the book Muslims consider the word of God and insist be treated with the utmost respect. The 58-year-old minister said the death threats started not long after he proclaimed in July that he would stage "International Burn-a-Quran Day."
Supporters, though, have been mailing copies of the holy text to his church of about 50 followers to be incinerated in a bonfire on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Gen. David Petraeus 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."
Jones responded that he is also concerned but is "wondering, 'When do we stop?'" He refused to cancel the protest at his Dove World Outreach Center but said he was still praying about it.
"How much do we back down? How many times do we back down?" Jones told the AP. "Instead of us backing down, maybe it's time to stand up. Maybe it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior."
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 most likely would be protected by the First Amendment's right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear in several landmark rulings 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 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.
Legal or not, 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.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added her disapproval at a dinner in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths," Clinton said.
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 on 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.
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed the concerns raised by Petraeus. "Any type of activity like that that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration," Gibbs told reporters.
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.
The world's leading Sunni Muslim institution of learning, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, accused the church of stirring up hate and discrimination, and called on other American churches speak out against it.
Last month, Indonesian Muslims demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, threatening violence if Jones goes through with it.
Jones dismisses the response of the other churches as "cowardly." He said even if they think burning Qurans is extreme, Christian ministers should be standing with him in denouncing the principles of Islam.
Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in Miami and Matthew Lee, Mark Sherman and Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.