Terry Jones: Bonfire of one man's vanity

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Pastor abandons Koran-burning stunt, but too late to stop worldwide fury - and bloodshed

The fundamentalist pastor who promised to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning hundreds of copies of the Koran pulled the plug on his stunt last night, in the face of blanket condemnation from world leaders and a warning from Interpol that Christians around the world were at risk of violent revenge attacks.

As anger mounted against the obscure Florida church, called the Dove World Outreach Centre, Pastor Terry Jones said he was changing his plan, following a meeting with local Muslim leaders.

Earlier, Barack Obama and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had led a chorus of condemnation at the proposed book-burning which only intensified through the day, amid claims that it had already prompted killings in Iraq.

Mr Obama called the stunt "a recruitment bonanza for al-Qa'ida" in a television interview, and the White House made clear that the President was considering a personal call to the renegade preacher to urge him to cancel the event, an appeal that Mr Jones had earlier said he might accept. In the hours before Pastor Jones' statement, though, he had kept the world guessing over whether he would relent.

In the news conference announcing his decision, the pastor claimed that he decided to cancel his protest in exchange for a deal to move a planned Islamic centre and mosque away from New York's Ground Zero. The imam planning the centre, however, quickly denied any such deal.

Mr Jones made his announcement outside his church alongside Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. Mr Musri later said there was only an agreement for him and the pastor to travel to New York and meet the imam overseeing plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero. "I told the pastor that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved," he said. "But there is not any offer from there that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution."

But then Mr Jones appeared before reporters again, adamant that he was promised the Islamic centre would be moved, and said he would be, "very, very disappointed" if it were not.

He had been under intense pressure to back off, including a personal call from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a visit from the FBI and condemnation from the around the world. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said burning the Koran was offensive to those who respect religious freedom. The governments of Indonesia, India and Pakistan, the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, and Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, also all criticised the plan.

Their calls for the event to be cancelled came as reports emerged from Baghdad of an apparent revenge attack on Iraq's only operating Anglican church, St George's. According to two eyewitnesses, up to four people were killed after gunmen opened fire on guards outside the church, which lies in a compound just outside the comparative safety of the Green Zone.

It has been targeted by extremists before but Canon Andrew White, the British-born vicar of St George's, said he believed that yesterday's attack was directly related to events in Florida. Iraqi authorities had warned of the prospect of such an incident.

"Without a doubt it is linked to Florida," he said by telephone from Baghdad. "The book-burning is huge news in Iraq at the moment. Every newspaper, every television station and radio, they've all been covering it."

Told of the shootings in Baghdad, Mr Jones, the leader of the Florida church, said he was "devastated", but did not acknowledge any responsibility for the shootings.

"This is a terrible act of terrorism," he said. "This should not be justified or tolerated by the world community. It is time for us to join together in the western world, in the Muslim and Christian world, and condemn such acts. We must no longer tolerate or close our eyes to such atrocities."

One Iraqi church member said that he had seen at least two guards killed, although Father White said he had been told that four were dead. Eyewitnesses said that gunmen approached the complex in the late morning and opened fire on a group of guards with automatic rifles.

The attack came as protests around the world began to mount at the planned stunt. As hundreds marched in Pakistan and Afghanistan even before the burning, Interpol issued a global alert warning of the "strong likelihood" of retribution. The US State Department warned its citizens overseas that "the potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high".

Mr Maliki met US officials and called on President Obama to halt the book-burning. "This ghastly action doesn't fall within free expression and there must be an intervention to stop it," he said.

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