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Published December 23, 2015
An anti-Islamic preacher backed off and then threatened to reconsider burning the Koran 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 Koran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he has been under intense pressure to give it up.
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.
Hours later, after Musri and the leader of the Ground Zero mosque denied such an agreement, 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."
Imam Muhammad Musri said that what he offered was a meeting among Jones, Rauf and himself to talk about the mosque location. Musri said he told Jones that he does not believe the mosque should be there and would do everything in his power to make sure it is moved.
Jones did not say whether the Koran 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 Koran 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 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."
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 news 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 Koran 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."
Jones' plans to burn Islam's holiest text on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sparked an international outcry. A cross-section of American politicians, officials and religious leaders spoke out in a unified voice against the pastor.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Jones on Thursday and urged him to cancel the event.
President Obama added his condemnation in an interview that aired earlier Thursday, urging Jones to "listen to those better angels" and call off the protest. He called the plan a "stunt" and a "recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda," warning that it could lead to "serious violence" in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values," Obama said in the ABC interview. "I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan."
The president was the latest in a line of officials to weigh in against the proposed book burning. It was similarly decried by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan.
Politicians across the spectrum joined the administration in criticizing the pastor's plan. On her Facebook page, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said the protest was "antithetical to American ideals." Palin had fueled the debate over the proposed Ground Zero mosque by coming out against the Islamic center, but said in her post that the Koran burning was comparable in its offense.
"People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation - much like building a mosque at Ground Zero," she wrote. "It will feed the fire of caustic rhetoric and appear as nothing more than mean-spirited religious intolerance. Don't feed that fire."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in an interview with Politico, also called the idea "wrong on every level."
Pastor John Hagee, with the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, wrote a letter to Jones Tuesday urging him to reconsider, calling his plans "an absolute violation of the Bible."
The Rev. Franklin Graham, who has drawn scorn for his anti-Islamic remarks, also opposed Jones' plans.
The State Department on Wednesday ordered U.S. embassies around the world to assess their security ahead of the planned weekend demonstration in Florida.
U.S. diplomatic posts had been instructed to convene "emergency action committees" to determine the potential for protests over the Koran-burning event. The posts were to warn American citizens in countries where protests may occur.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.