Florida Pastor Says Koran-Burning Will Not Happen

  • Sept. 9: Dove World Outreach Center pastor Terry Jones speaks to the media in Gainesville, Florida.

    Sept. 9: Dove World Outreach Center pastor Terry Jones speaks to the media in Gainesville, Florida.  (AFP)

  • Sept. 9: Dove World Outreach Center pastor Terry Jones, left, listens as Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando, speaks during a press conference in Gainesville.

    Sept. 9: Dove World Outreach Center pastor Terry Jones, left, listens as Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando, speaks during a press conference in Gainesville.  (AFP)

A Florida pastor said Friday he will not burn Korans this weekend after appearing to walk back a similar pledge the day before. 

An associate of the pastor says the Rev. Terry Jones is headed to New York aboard a Friday night flight. Jones has said he planned to meet with the imam overseeing a proposed mosque and Islamic center to be built near ground zero.

In two television interviews, the Rev. Terry Jones said the book-burning "is not going to happen," but also repeated his claim that an imam told him the controversial Ground Zero mosque would be moved in exchange for his decision. 

"Absolutely no doubt about it," Jones said. 

A disagreement between those two religious leaders over the mosque had thrown into doubt Jones' announcement Thursday that he was calling off the Koran-burning, a protest meant to mark nine years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. After meeting with Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Jones said he was assured he had a bargain that the mosque planned in lower Manhattan would be moved. The decision was met with relief, as top government officials and international organizations had warned that the burning would pose a security threat, particularly to U.S. troops overseas. 

But Musri insisted he never promised to change the location and that Jones "stretched my words." The imam in charge of the New York Islamic center and mosque project also quickly denied any deal was made. Musri repeated that claim Friday. 

Jones, after backpedaling to say the Koran protest was merely suspended, said it was canceled Friday and that he hopes to still hold a meeting with the mosque developers in New York City Saturday. 

Jones spoke on ABC and NBC Friday morning. 

Despite Jones' wavering, many in Asia greeted the news not to burn the Koran with relief, though some said the damage already has been done. Muslims consider the book the sacred word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect.

Cleric Rusli Hasbi told 1,000 worshippers attending Friday morning prayers in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, that Jones had already "hurt the heart of the Muslim world."

"If he'd gone through with it, it would have been tantamount to war," the cleric said in the coastal town of Lhokseumawe. "A war that would have rallied Muslims all over the world."

A day earlier in New York, the Islamic center project leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said in a statement that he was glad Jones had backed down 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."

Opponents argue it is insensitive to families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close to where Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people. Proponents say the project reflects religious freedom and diversity and that hatred of Muslims is fueling the opposition.

Moving the mosque is not why Jones canceled his threat, Musri said. Instead, he relented under the pressure from political and religious leaders of all faiths worldwide to halt what President Barack Obama called a "stunt." Musri said Jones told him the burning "would endanger the troops overseas, Americans traveling abroad and others around the world."

"That was the real motivation for calling it off," Musri said.

Jones had never invoked the mosque controversy as a reason for his planned protest at his Dove World Outreach Center. Instead, he cited his belief that the Koran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.

Obama urged Jones to listen to "those better angels," saying that besides endangering lives, it would give Islamic terrorists a recruiting tool. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of calling Jones personally.

Jones' church, which has about 50 members, is independent of any denomination. It follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day.

The cancellation also was welcomed by Jones' neighbors in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city had mobilized to plan inclusive events, including Koran readings at services, as a counterpoint to Jones' protest.

Jones said at the news conference 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 Koran burning.

"We are, of course, now against any other group burning Korans," Jones said. "We would right now ask no one to burn Korans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it."

Despite Jones' words, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said to a crowd of tens of thousands of Muslim faithful that they had come "to respond to this criminal, this liar, this crazy priest who reflects a crazy Western attitude toward Islam and the Muslim nation."

"We came to say, the Koran is our constitution, we are committed to God and his holy book," he said to those holding the texts in their hands at a stadium in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. "God willing, should they try to carry out their crime against the Koran, God will tear their state apart and they will become God's lesson to anyone who tries to desecrate the holy book."

Part of the pressure exerted on Jones came from Gates who briefly spoke to the pastor before his first announcement to call it off. Gates expressed "his grave concern that going forward with this Koran burning would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

Morrell said earlier that the decision to issue a personal appeal was not easy because it could provoke other extremists "who, all they want, is a call from so-and-so." Earlier, Jones had said if he was contacted by the White House that he might change his mind. After Gates' call to Jones, Morrell said the secretary's "fundamental baseline attitude about this is that if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform it was a call worth placing."

In Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are in harm's way, President Hamid Karzai said he heard Jones had perhaps abandoned his Koran-burning plan.

"The holy book is implanted in the hearts and minds of all the Muslims," he said from Kabul. "Humiliation of the holy book represents the humiliation of our people. I hope that this decision will be stopped and should never have been considered. I ask the world for peace and stability and the respect of each other." 

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.