Al Jazeera explains why a pastor’s controversial plans to burn copies of the Quran are legal under American law.
|Pastor Terry Jones has planned the burning to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. [AFP]|
A Christian pastor in the US state of Florida has called off and then threatened to reconsider plans to burn copies of the Quran, in an event that had been roundly criticised and stoked fears of violence around the globe.
Reverend Terry Jones said on Thursday that he made the decision to cancel the event because the leader of a planned Islamic centre near the so-called Ground Zero site in New York had agreed to move its location.
However, the developers behind the planned Islamic centre said they had not agreed to any such deal, and that the centre would not be moved.
“It is untrue that the community center known as Park51 in lower Manhattan is being moved. The project will proceed as planned. What is being reported in the media today is a falsehood,” the developers said in a statement.
Jones, the leader of a congregation of about 50 people, had planned to incinerate copies of the Muslim holy book in a bonfire on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, DC.
However, during a televised news conference on Thursday, Jones called on others not to burn copies of the Quran. He said instead, he would fly to New York to speak with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the head of the planned New York Islamic centre, about moving the project.
Jones’ announcement came after the pastor spoke in private with a local imam, Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
But Musri told Al Jazeera later in the day that there was no actual promise to abandon the planned New York cultural centre, just an agreement from the New York imam to talk to Jones about it.
“[Jones] and I know that part of the deal can not be completed unless Imam Rauf signs this and there are no promises more than my full commitment to work towards that end,” Musri said.
Upon hearing the news, Jones said he had been lied to and he threatened to reconsider the decision to cancel the event.
“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.”
Jones did not say whether the Quran 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 New York Islamic centre controversy as a reason for his planned protest. But he said on Thursday afternoon that he prayed about the decision and concluded that if the centre was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Quran burning.
The Quran burning event had been criticised by Barack Obama, the US president, the top US general in Afghanistan, the United Nations and several Christian leaders.
“This could increase the recruitment of individuals who’d be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities,” Obama said in an ABC television interview on Thursday, calling the burning a stunt.
“You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan … This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda,” he said.
The plan sparked protests in Afghanistan and Indonesia and US officials expressed concerns that the burning could put Americans at risk.
General David Petraeus, the US and Nato commander in the Afghan capital, Kabul, said “images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by the Taliban in Afghanistan, to inflame public opinion and incite violence”.
Meanwhile Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, phoned Jones on Thursday, warning him that the event could put the lives of US soldiers at risk, the Pentagon said.
The Vatican also denounced the planned Quran burning as “outrageous and grave”.
Jones’ actions likely would be protected by the US constitution’s right to free speech.
The US Supreme Court has made clear that speech deemed offensive to many people, even the majority of people, cannot be suppressed by the government unless it is clearly directed to intimidate someone or amounts to an incitement to violence, legal experts have said.