A Florida evangelical church vowed Tuesday to go ahead with plans to burn the Koran on the 9/11 anniversary despite fears it may fuel an angry backlash and endanger US and allied troops in Afghanistan.
The White House lent its voice to growing concern from military leaders that the incendiary move could trigger outrage around the Islamic world, as well as stoke a growing anti-Muslim tide of feeling in the United States.
“It puts our troops in harm’s way. Any type of activity like that that puts our troops in harm’s way would be a concern to this administration,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, reiterating comments by top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
US Attorney General Eric Holder was to meet religious leaders from across all faiths later Tuesday to discuss how to stem a wave of Islamophobia which has risen since plans were unveiled to build an Islamic cultural center close to Ground Zero in New York.
Saturday’s anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in which the World Trade Center was destroyed is also set to coincide with the festivities for the Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
A small Florida church has vowed to mark Saturday’s anniversary and honor the deaths of almost 3,000 people killed in the Al-Qaeda militant attack on the United States by burning a Koran.
Pastor Terry Jones said the Koran torching aimed “to remember those who were brutally murdered on September 11,” and to send a warning “to the radical element of Islam.”
But the US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley insisted freedom of religion was a pillar of American society, adding “the potential act of burning a Koran… is contrary to our values, contrary to how civil society has emerged in the country.”
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also warned during a visit to Washington “there is a risk that it may also have a negative impact on security for our troops.”
Petraeus added that burning the holy book of Islam would provide propaganda for insurgents and fuel anti-American sentiment.
“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” Petraeus told the Wall Street Journal.
But Jones, who heads the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville Florida, remained defiant, saying his group was taking Petraeus’s words seriously, but “we have firmly made up our mind” to go ahead.
“Instead of us being blamed for what other people will do or might do, why don’t we send a warning to them? Why don’t we send a warning to radical Islam and say, don’t do it. If you attack us, if you attack us, we will attack you,” he said.
Al-Qaeda militants plowed two hijacked commercial airlines into the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, destroying the twin towers and raining terror on the city.
Another plane was flown into the Pentagon outside Washington, while a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers overpowered the hijackers.
“Having spoken to many families across the country over the last few weeks, I have heard many Muslim Americans say they have never felt this anxious or this insecure in America since directly after September 11,” Ingrid Mattson, head of the Islamic Society of North America, told a press conference.
In a coordinated show of support, top religious leaders from across all faiths came together Tuesday to fight Islamophobia before meeting with the country’s attorney general.
“To those who would exercise derision… bigotry, open rejection of our fellow Americans for their religious faith, I say shame on you,” said Richard Cizik, one of the country’s most prominent evangelical leaders.
“We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our communities. And by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship,” added Rabbi Nancy Kreimer.
But the plans to burn a Koran are already triggering outrage in the Islamic world.
There have already been protests in the Afghan capital Kabul and in Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority country — while Iran has warned the burning could unleash an uncontrolled Muslim response.
On Monday about 200 men gathered near a mosque in Kabul to protest against the planned torching, shouting “Death to America” and “Long live Islam,” witnesses said.