US pastor Terry Jones vows to go ahead with Koran burning on September 11
A Christian pastor in the US, the Reverend Terry Jones, has insisted he will go ahead with plans to burn copies of the Koran on September 11, despite criticism from the top US general in Afghanistan, the White House and the State Department, as well as a host of religious leaders.
Mr Jones, who is known for posting signs proclaiming that Islam is the devil's religion, said the US Constitution gives him the right to publicly set fire to the book that Muslims consider the word of God.
General David Petraeus warned that "images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan - and around the world - to inflame public opinion and incite violence".
It was a rare example of a military commander taking a position on a domestic political matter.
Mr Jones responded that he is also concerned but is "wondering, 'When do we stop'?"
He refused to cancel the protest set for Saturday at his Dove World Outreach Centre in Florida, a church that espouses an anti-Islam philosophy.
"How much do we back down? How many times do we back down?" Mr Jones said. "Instead of us backing down, maybe it's to time to stand up. Maybe it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behaviour."
Still, Mr Jones said he will pray about his decision.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the administration hoped Americans would stand up and condemn the church's plan.
"We think that these are provocative acts," Mr Crowley said. "We would like to see more Americans stand up and say that this is inconsistent with our American values; in fact, these actions themselves are un-American."
Meeting with religious leaders to discuss recent attacks on Muslims and mosques around the US, Attorney General Eric Holder called the planned burning both idiotic and dangerous, according to a Justice Department official.
Secretary of State Hillary 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," Mrs Clinton said.
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed the concerns raised by Mr Petraeus. "Any type of activity like that that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration," Mr Gibbs told reporters.
Mr Jones said he has received more than 100 death threats and has started wearing a .40-calibre pistol strapped to his hip.
The 58-year-old minister said the death threats started not long after he proclaimed in July that he would stage International Burn-a-Koran Day. Supporters were mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his church to be incinerated in a bonfire.
Mr Jones, who has about 50 followers, gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of his small church declaring "Islam is of the Devil".
The preacher: A small church in the heart of small town USA
The global reverberations from the Dove World Outreach Center's anti-Islam campaign belie its insignificance, even in the small Florida town of Gainesville where the centre attracts barely 50 congregants.
Founded in 1986, the church is now run by a former hotel manager, Terry Jones, a lanky preacher with a bushy white moustache who is treated as a fringe figure even in Gainesville (population 125,000). Under his guidance, Dove is trying to change the evangelical church's role "from a local church to an apostolic church with a world vision".
There are an estimated 115,000 white evangelical churches in the United States that wield significant political clout. The movement's umbrella group, the National Association of Evangelicals, has also urged the group to give up its protest.
The church's website claims that it seeks to "expose Islam" as a "violent and oppressive religion" and to raise awareness "that the Koran is leading people to hell".
Mr Jones, however, told the New York Times that he had no experience of what the Koran said. He said that he had received more than 100 death threats and has now started wearing a pistol.
The church runs similarly virulent campaigns such as "abortion is murder; homosexuality is sin", and also ran a "no homo for mayor" campaign. Its "International Burn a Koran Day" Facebook page has attracted more than 8,400 online followers. An opposing group has almost twice as many followers.
Local opposition has been swift: two dozen churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organisations in Gainesville have planned inclusive events to counter Mr Jones's protest.
Islam in America
* The exact number of American Muslims is unknown – the US census does not record religious affiliation – but most estimates suggest that they make up around 7 million, or 2 per cent, of the population.
* There are fewer than 2,000 mosques in the US, many of them makeshift prayer rooms. New York City has around 100 mosques, more than 90 per cent of which have been built in the last 40 years.
* One of the most powerful figures in 17th-century New York was a Muslim: Anthony Janszoon van Salee was a wealthy Dutch Moroccan landowner and merchant whose father was an admiral in the Moroccan navy. Van Salee was also one of the first settlers of Brooklyn.
* California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas and Ohio are the states which have the highest concentrations of followers of Islam.
* One in five US Muslims is a convert to Islam.