The Florida preacher who captured the attention of the world with a threat to burn 200 copies of the Koran on Saturday has called the protest off, apparently as part of an attempt to move the location of a planned Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York.
In a dramatic shift on Thursday evening, Terry Jones of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., said he would be flying to New York on Saturday to talk to Muslim officials about moving the facility farther away from the former site of the World Trade Center.
Pastor Jones had scheduled his Koran-burning protest for Saturday, the ninth anniversary of 9/11, and tensions were rising across the Islamic world.
Until Thursday afternoon all efforts to convince the pastor to cancel the protest had failed – including comments by President Obama warning that the book burning would provide a recruiting bonanza for Al-Qaeda and endanger US troops overseas.
A solution, confusion, and Donald Trump
The logjam apparently broke during a meeting with a Muslim leader from central Florida who asked Jones what it would take to convince him to call off the Koran burning.
Jones later recounted his version of the conversation to reporters: “If they were willing to either cancel the mosque at the ground zero location, or if they were willing to move it away from that location, we would consider that a sign from God,” Jones said.
Jones said he received assurances from the central Florida Muslim leader, Imam Muhammad Musri, that the mosque near ground zero in New York would be moved.
“The American people do not want the mosque there and, of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran,” Jones said. “The imam has agreed to move the mosque. We have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday. And on Saturday I will be flying up there to meet with him.”
Imam Musri later clarified that the agreement was for a meeting to discuss the mosque issue, rather than an agreement that the mosque would be moved.
In New York, there was no indication of a deal to move the mosque near ground zero. Both Reuters and NBC reported there was no deal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah and was not working on Thursday, but his press office said they had no information that the mosque might be moved. Neither Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf nor his wife Daisy Khan returned phone calls.
Separately, Donald Trump, the self-promotional businessman, says he has offered the developer of the project, Hisham Elzanaty, $6 million for the land. As part of any deal, the developers of the mosque would have to move it at least five blocks farther from ground zero, Mr. Trump told Bloomberg News.
Also on Thursday afternoon, Jones received a telephone call from Defense Secretary William Gates. The Defense secretary told the pastor that he was concerned his Koran-burning protest might incite violence and endanger American service members.
A day of concern in Washington
The call came after a day of growing concern within the White House, Defense Department, and State Department over potential international fallout from any Koran burning. The White House issued no formal statement about the cancellation, but the issue dominated the White House press briefing earlier in the day.
Initial reaction to the cancellation was more relief than happiness. “God works in wonderful ways, and it’s gotten people to talk about Islamophobia,” said Ahmed Rehab, spokesperson with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Mr. Rehab added: “The burning of the Koran is a serious offense…. You won’t find a Muslim burning a Bible or a Torah.” The spokesman said, “Frankly, there’s no good reason to burn anybody’s sacred text. If you don’t like it, then debate it, but don’t burn it.”
Jones’ plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks hadn’t gone entirely as planned.
He organized his “International Burn a Koran Day” in part to raise awareness among Christians to take a stand against what he views as a violent, intolerant, and expansionist Islam. But instead of rallying Christians, his planned book burning triggered an outpouring of condemnation and concern around the world, including calls for solidarity – rather than division – among religious faiths.
Faiths unified to condemn protest
Earlier this week, a group of 35 religious leaders met in Washington and issued a joint statement denouncing what they called “the anti-Muslim frenzy” over the mosque near ground zero in New York. The group also called the planned Koran burning “a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation.”
The statement continued: “As religious leaders we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today.”
Speaking at the event, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said religious leaders must not stand in silence when events like these unfold.
“I have a great fear that the story of bigotry, the story of hatred, the story of animosity to others is going to be taken by some to be the story of the real America, and it’s not,” Cardinal McCarrick said. “This is not America. This is not our country.”
Many religious groups took issue with Jones’ version of Christianity.
“If Jones and his followers go through with their plans to burn the Koran they might as well burn some Bibles too, because they are already destroying the teachings of Jesus,” said Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a network of social justice Christians.
“Jesus called [on] his followers to be peacemakers, and to love not only their neighbors but even their enemies,” Mr. Wallis said.