GAINESVILLE, Fla. – An anti-Islamic preacher backed off and then threatened to reconsider burning the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, angrily accusing a Muslim leader of lying to him Thursday with a promise to move an Islamic center and mosque away from New York’s ground zero. The imam planning the center denied there was ever such a deal.
The Rev. Terry Jones generated an international firestorm with his plan to burn the Quran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he has been under intense pressure to give it up. President Barack Obama urged him to listen to “those better angels” and give up his “stunt,” saying it would endanger U.S. troops and give Islamic terrorists a recruiting tool. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of calling Jones personally.
Standing outside his 50-member Pentecostal church, the Dove Outreach Center, alongside Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Jones said he relented when Musri assured him that the New York mosque will be moved.
Musri, however, said after the news conference that the agreement was only for him and Jones to travel to New York and meet Saturday with the imam overseeing plans to build a mosque near ground zero.
Hours later, Jones said Musri “clearly, clearly lied to us.”
“Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision,” Jones said. “So as of right now, we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it.”
Jones did not say whether the Quran burning could still be held Saturday, but he said he expected Musri to keep his word and expected “the imam in New York to back up one of his own men.”
Jones had never invoked the mosque controversy as a reason for his planned protest. He cited his belief that the Quran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
But he said Thursday afternoon that he prayed about the decision and concluded that if the mosque was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Quran burning.
“We are, of course, now against any other group burning Qurans,” Jones said. “We would right now ask no one to burn Qurans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it.”
Musri thanked Jones and his church members “for making the decision today to defuse the situation and bring to a positive end what has become the world over a spectacle that no one would benefit from except extremists and terrorists” who would use it to recruit future radicals.
After Jones accused him of lying, Musri said the pastor “stretched my words” at the press conference.
“I think there was no confusion to begin with. When we stepped out of the church, we had an agreement to meet in New York,” Musri said. He added that Jones “said his main reason for stopping the event was that it would endanger the troops overseas, Americans traveling abroad and others around the world.”
Musri said he told the pastor “that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved,” Musri said. “But there is not any offer from there (New York) that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution.”
Musri said Thursday night that he still plans to go ahead with the meeting Saturday.
In New York, the leader of the Islamic center project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, issued a statement saying he was glad Jones had decided not to burn the Quran but that he had spoken to neither the pastor nor Musri.
“We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter,” Rauf said. “We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell confirmed that Gates called Jones about 4 p.m. Thursday – shortly before the pastor’s announcement. During the “very brief” call, Gates expressed “his grave concern that going forward with this Quran burning would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Morrell said.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., thanked Obama, Gates and other administration officials for their efforts. “This is definitely a positive moment in showing America’s tolerance and pluralism and should not go unappreciated in the Muslim world,” Haqqani said.