GAINESVILLE, Florida: President Barack Obama warned on Thursday that an obscure US Christian pastor’s plan to burn the Koran could provoke Al-Qaeda suicide bombings, as international pressure mounted on Washington to step in.
“This is a recruitment bonanza for Al-Qaeda,” Obama said in an ABC television interview. “You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities.”
The international police agency Interpol warned governments worldwide of an increased risk of terrorist attacks if the planned burning went ahead. The FBI already has advised of possible retaliatory attacks on US facilities abroad, while the US State Department warned Americans traveling overseas to be alert for anti-US demonstrations.
Terry Jones, leader of a small Protestant church with about 30 members in Gainesville, Florida, is planning to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed almost 3,000 people.
As The Daily Star went to press, the US administration was weighing a possible direct appeal to the pastor to ask him to call off his plan, the Pentagon said late Thursday.
Jones told USA Today he had not been contacted by the White House. If he were, “that would cause us to definitely think it over. That’s what we’re doing now. I don’t think a call from them is something we would ignore.”
The United States has powerful legal protections for the right to free speech and there is little law enforcement authorities can do to stop Jones from going ahead, other than citing him under local bylaws against public burning.
Jones’ threat has caused worldwide alarm and raised tensions over the 9/11 anniversary, which this year coincides with the Muslim Eid al-Fitr festival ending the month of Ramadan.
India, prone to sectarian strife, called on the United States to stop Jones and urged the media to refrain from showing pictures of burning Korans.
Pakistan “urged the international community to discourage this fanatic approach and take steps to stop these fundamentalists,” a Foreign Office spokesman said in an Associated Press of Pakistan report.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has written to the US leader, urging him to step in personally. “President Yudhoyono thinks that if this was allowed to happen, it will disturb world peace,” said aide Heru Lelono.
Jones’ plan has been condemned by international church groups, US religious and political leaders and military commanders, who say it will jeopardize the security of US military personnel abroad, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“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,” Obama said on “Good Morning America.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called on the US to “guarantee the rights of American Muslims and prevent the spread of such inappropriate and disrespectful actions.”
In neighboring Iraq, Premier Nouri al-Maliki warned that the event “might be taken as a pretext by the extremists to carry out more killings.”
Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the main seat of learning for Sunni Islam, warned of the “dangerous consequences of this act,” in a statement carried by the official Egyptian news agency MENA.
Mohammad Mursi, spokesman for Egypt’s influential Muslim Brotherhood, said the organization was calling for pressure on all Muslim governments to expel US ambassadors.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak denounced the event and warned of “violent reactions in the Arab and Muslim world that this racist, odious call could provoke.”
For its part, Kuwait said the Florida pastor’s “bizarre” plans would undermine inter-religious understanding.
The head of the Christian churches league in Kuwait, pastor Emmanuel Benjamen al-Ghareeb, said the pastor’s plan did not represent Christ’s teachings of tolerance.
Elsewhere in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the pastor against such “irresponsible actions,” saying that burning religious books was “wrong and undermines religious tolerance and peace.”
The Convocation of American Churches in Europe warned of reprisals against Christians in Muslim-majority countries, while the World Council of Churches, representing 349 branches of Christianity, and Jewish leaders also condemned Jones.
France condemned what it called the “irresponsible and vicious” statements by Jones.
In the United Kingdom, Foreign Secretary William Hague also condemned the clergyman’s plan to burn copies of the Koran as being “provocative in the extreme.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, called the Koran burning plans “unacceptable.” – with agencies