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Will he or won’t he? Negotiations between a local Muslim cleric and the leader of a tiny Florida church who had threatened to publicly burn copies of Islam’s holy text left the heated debate in a state of confusion with the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks a day away.
The Rev. Terry Jones said Thursday he would call off the planned burning of Qurans based on a deal negotiated with the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida that the location of a mosque planned near ground zero in New York would be changed.
But Imam Muhammad Musri said he was clear on Thursday when he told Jones that he could only set up a meeting with planners of the New York City mosque, whose leader said he had spoken to neither the pastor nor Musri. Jones responded by opening the door, if only a crack, that he would go forward with his plan on Saturday.
“We are just really shocked,” Jones said of Musri. “He clearly, clearly lied to us.”
For U.S. political leaders and Muslims around the world who have been outraged by Jones’ antics, the on-again, off-again threat bred even more angst and frustration.
Cleric Rusli Hasbi told 1,000 worshippers attending Friday morning prayers in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, that whether or not he burns the Quran, Jones had already “hurt the heart of the Muslim world.”
“If he’d gone through with it, it would have been tantamount to war,” the cleric said in the coastal town of Lhokseumawe. “A war that would have rallied Muslims all over the world.”
Muslims consider the book the sacred word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect.
In Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are in harm’s way, President Hamid Karzai said he heard Jones had perhaps abandoned his Quran-burning plan.
“The holy book is implanted in the hearts and minds of all the Muslims,” Karzai said. “Humiliation of the holy book represents the humiliation of our people. I hope that this decision will be stopped and should never have been considered.”
Jones announced earlier Thursday — with Musri at his side — that they had a bargain and that he would call off the Quran-burning. Later he accused Musri of lying and said the burning was only suspended, not canceled.
Musri, countered that Jones wasn’t confused or misled and that “after we stepped out in front of the cameras, he stretched my words” about the agreement. The imam in charge of the New York Islamic center and mosque project also quickly denied any deal was made.
Musri said Jones had instead caved into the firestorm of criticism from around the world and that his announcement might have been a ploy to try to force Muslim leaders’ hand on the Islamic center.
Jones said later that he expected Musri to keep his word and “the imam in New York to back up one of his own men.” Musri said he still plans to go ahead with the meeting Saturday.
In New York, the Islamic center project leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said in a statement that he was glad Jones had backed down but that he had spoken to neither the pastor nor Musri.
“We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter,” Rauf said. “We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony.”
Opponents argue it is insensitive to families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close to where Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people. Proponents say the project reflects religious freedom and diversity and that hatred of Muslims is fueling the opposition.
Moving the mosque is not why Jones canceled his threat, Musri said. Instead, he relented under the pressure from political and religious leaders of all faiths worldwide to halt what President Barack Obama called a “stunt.” Musri said Jones told him the burning “would endanger the troops overseas, Americans traveling abroad and others around the world.”
“That was the real motivation for calling it off,” Musri said.
Jones had never invoked the mosque controversy as a reason for his planned protest at his Dove World Outreach Center. Instead, he cited his belief that the Quran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
Obama urged Jones to listen to “those better angels,” saying that besides endangering lives, it would give Islamic terrorists a recruiting tool. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of calling Jones personally.
Jones’ church, which has about 50 members, is independent of any denomination. It follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day.
News of the cancellation also was welcomed by Jones’ neighbors in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city had mobilized to plan inclusive events, including Quran readings at services, as a counterpoint to Jones’ protest.
Jones said at the news conference that he prayed about the decision and concluded that if the mosque was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Quran burning.
“We are, of course, now against any other group burning Qurans,” Jones said. “We would right now ask no one to burn Qurans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it.”
Despite Jones’ words, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said to a crowd of tens of thousands of Muslim faithful that they had come “to respond to this criminal, this liar, this crazy priest who reflects a crazy Western attitude toward Islam and the Muslim nation.”
“We came to say, the Quran is our constitution, we are committed to God and his holy book,” he said to those holding the texts in their hands at a stadium in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. “God willing, should they try to carry out their crime against the Quran, God will tear their state apart and they will become God’s lesson to anyone who tries to desecrate the holy book.”
Part of the pressure exerted on Jones came from Gates who briefly spoke to the pastor before his first announcement to call it off. Gates expressed “his grave concern that going forward with this Quran burning would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Morrell said earlier that the decision to issue a personal appeal was not easy because it could provoke other extremists “who, all they want, is a call from so-and-so.” Earlier, Jones had said if he was contacted by the White House that he might change his mind. After Gates’ call to Jones, Morrell said the secretary’s “fundamental baseline attitude about this is that if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform it was a call worth placing.”
Associated Press Writers Ayi Jufridar in Lhokseumawe, Indonesia; Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City; Robert Reid in Kabul; Anne Flaherty and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; and AP Legal Affairs Writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press