WASHINGTON — Under tremendous pressure from U.S. officials all the way up to President Barack Obama, a Florida pastor on Thursday called off a Quran burning that he'd scheduled for Saturday, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which had drawn international condemnation and posed a potential threat to national security.
Rev. Terry Jones announced the change of plans to a media circus outside his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville shortly after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the pastor to make a direct appeal. Gates told Jones that burning Qurans would inflame Muslim sentiment and endanger U.S. troops abroad.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that Gates had weighed concerns that making such a call could encourage copycats who want attention, but felt that "if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform, that call was worth placing."
Gates' call was a highly unusual outreach to a civilian that showed how concerned the Obama administration had become about the potential ramifications of such an insult to Islam.
Never miss a local story.
It also reflected the triumph of national security concerns over freedom of expression. Only weeks earlier, Obama spoke out to protect plans for an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York, arguing that the nation's First Amendment principles were paramount to the sensitivities of 9/11 victims' families. Jones' right to burn a Quran as a matter of free expression didn't get the same backing.
Jones also spent part of the day talking to a South Florida imam, and he indicated to reporters that his decision to scrap the burning of Muslims' holy book was tied to his understanding that the Islamic cultural center would be scrapped or relocated. Jones said he'd travel to New York on Saturday to meet the imam involved with that project. "If they were willing to move that we would consider that a sign from God,'' Jones said.
However, the project's sponsor, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, hasn't announced any such reversal. Park51, which is one of the names behind the proposed Islamic center, posted a Twitter feed after Jones spoke. It said that "it is untrue that Park51 is being moved. The project is moving ahead as planned."
Earlier, Obama signaled his own concerns to Jones through an interview with ABC News. He called the planned Quran burnings "destructive" and a "stunt," and said the idea was "completely contrary to our values" of religious freedom and tolerance.
Obama also said that if Jones went forward, it could "greatly endanger" U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, trigger violence in Pakistan, menace national security and invite suicide bombings in American and European cities. Obama called it "a recruitment bonanza for al Qaida."
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, made a similar warning, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cabled U.S. ambassadors throughout the world to have them stress that Jones' plan had been preemptively denounced by the U.S. government.
The State Department on Thursday also issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens abroad to be alert for possible violence in reaction to the planned Quran burnings.
The advisory warned "of the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations in many countries" and noted that "demonstrations, some violent, have already taken place in several countries, including Afghanistan and Indonesia.
"The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high," the advisory said, adding that travelers should "pay attention to local reaction to the situation and . . . avoid areas where demonstrations may take place."
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told the U.S. ambassador and the top American general there that the U.S. must do all it can to prevent the Quran burning. During a meeting with Ambassador James Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Maliki said that burning the Qurans could become a pretext for attacks on Americans. Maliki rejected the idea that the perpetrators of 9/11 were representative of Muslims in general.
Muslims believe the writings of the Quran come directly from God, and practicing Muslims believe their holy book should be handled properly; burning the Quran would be an extremely offensive act to worshippers.
Such an event also would likely feed a perception that U.S. is at war with Islam, bolstering the claims of radical Muslim groups such as the Taliban and al Qaida.
(William Douglas, Warren P. Strobel and Marisa Taylor in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY