Plans for a Quran burning by a fringe Florida pastor, Terry Jones, have garnered worldwide news media attention this summer, attention that peaked Thursday when he backed off — and then threatened to reconsider — burning the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Saturday.
A renegade pastor and his tiny flock set fire to a Quran on a street corner and made sure to capture it on film. They were ignored.
That stunt took place in 2008, involving members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., an almost universally condemned group of fundamentalists who also protest at military funerals.
But plans for a similar stunt by another fringe pastor, Terry Jones, have garnered worldwide news media attention this summer, attention that peaked Thursday when he backed off — and then threatened to reconsider — burning the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Saturday.
Unlike the Quran-burning by Westboro Baptist, Jones’ planned event in Gainesville, Fla., coincided with the controversy over the proposed building of a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero and a simmering summerlong debate about the freedoms of speech and religion.
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Jones, 58, was able to put himself at the center of those issues by using the news lull of summer and the demands of a 24-hour news cycle to promote his anti-Islam cause. He said he consented to more than 150 interview requests in July and August, each time expressing his extremist views about Islam and Shariah law. In the process, he has become a TV news fixture with his craggy face and white droopy mustache.
By the middle of this week, the planned Quran burning was the lead story on some network newscasts, and topic No. 1 on cable news, an extraordinary amount of attention for a marginal figure with a very small following. President Obama condemned the Quran-burning plan Thursday morning, and his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said there were “more people at his news conferences than listen to his sermons,” in a bit of media criticism.
Jones’ plan, which he announced in July, slowly gained attention in August, particularly overseas. It became a top story in the United States after protests against Jones in Afghanistan and after the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, warned this week that the Quran burning could endanger troops.
“Before there were riots and heads of states talking about him, it could have been a couple of paragraphs in a story about Sept. 11 commemorations,” Kathleen Carroll, the executive editor of The Associated Press, said Thursday. “It’s beyond that now.”
In some ways, this week’s events were the culmination of a year’s worth of hateful statements and stunts by Jones and the few dozen members of his church.
Jones started to make noise in Gainesville in summer 2009, when he posted a sign outside his church that read “Islam is of the devil.” The Gainesville Sun (which is owned by The New York Times Co.) wrote about the sign, under the headline “Anti-Islam church sign stirs up community outrage.”
He told The Sun the sign would not be his last.
The newspaper soon published an investigation into what it called the church’s “financial abuses,” which included a profit-making eBay furniture-sales business operating on church property.
The congregation’s protests continued last fall, when some children from the church wore anti-Islam shirts to school, prompting another article by The Sun, which was picked up by The Associated Press and republished by outlets such as USA Today and Al-Arabiya, an Arabic language news network.
The church “never really rested after that first” sign, said Jacki Levine, the managing editor of The Sun. She said newspaper employees had repeatedly discussed how to be “responsible” in their coverage.
Islam was not Jones’ only target. Church members also held protests against Craig Lowe, an openly gay man who was elected mayor of Gainesville in April.
Jones’ announcement about the Quran burning gained scant attention at first, with a short article published by a website, Religion News Service. That article was subsequently mentioned by bigger sites, such as Yahoo, and soon, Jones had been booked on CNN, where host Rick Sanchez called his plan “crazy” but added, “At least he has got the guts to come on this show and face off.”
Alarmed by negative mentions in articles in overseas newspapers, Gainesville Mayor Lowe released a statement Aug. 3 labeling Jones’ church a “tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community.”
News executives said the proposed burning took on a greater significance after the protests in Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries. In Kabul last Sunday, up to 500 people attended a protest at which Jones was burned in effigy, according to the AP.
Late Thursday, Jones’ plans were unclear after a dizzying day of rapidly changing events that began with Obama calling the event a “stunt” and warning that it could lead to violence against Americans overseas and serve as a “recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of calling Jones personally.
The president asked Jones to listen to “those better angels” who pleaded with him to call off the event. U.S. and world leaders, Pope Benedict XVI, Sarah Palin, evangelical Christians and leaders of several religions also asked Jones to cancel the burning.
By afternoon, standing outside his 50-member Pentecostal church, the Dove Outreach Center, alongside Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Jones said he relented after Musri assured him the New York Islamic center and mosque would 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 the complex. 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.”
In New York, the leader of the Islamic center project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said he had spoken to neither the pastor nor Musri.
Jones had never invoked the Islamic center 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.
After Jones accused him of lying, Musri said the pastor “stretched my words” at the news conference.
Real-estate developer Donald Trump, meanwhile, offered to pay a major investor in two buildings at the proposed Islamic center site 25 percent more than the purchase price if he would agree to move the site at least five blocks from Ground Zero.
The investor, Hisham Elzanaty, rejected the offer. “This is just a cheap attempt to get publicity and get in the limelight,” said Elzanaty’s lawyer, Wolodymyr Starosolsky.
Sharif El-Gamal, a developer for the project, denied that plans for the Islamic center and mosque had changed.
Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.