US pastor calls off 'offensive' Koran-burn plans

The pastor who planned an "International Burn-a-Koran Day" on September 11 called off the protest tonight after his plans were widely condemned.

Foreign Secretary William Hague was among those who condemned Pastor Terry Jones, who leads a tiny Florida church, describing his plan as "selfish and provocative in the extreme".

Mr Jones said he had called off the book-burning after he agreed to meet the imam of a proposed mosque in New York, close to the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

He claimed the imam had agreed to change the location of the mosque.

"Our thought was, the American people do not as a whole want the mosque at the Ground Zero location, that if they were willing to either cancel the mosque at the Ground Zero location or if they were willing to move that location, if they were willing to move it away from that location, we would consider that a sign from God," he said tonight.

Mr Jones said he would accompany a local imam to New York on Saturday to meet Imam Rauf.

"He has agreed to move the location. That of course cannot happen overnight but he has agreed to move that," he said.

"The American people do not want the mosque there and of course Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran.

"The imam has agreed to move the mosque.

"We have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday and on Saturday I will be flying up there to meet with him."

Imam Muhammed Musri, head of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said he would be travelling with Mr Jones to New York.

He told reporters: "Because I, like many Americans, Muslims or not, feel that the placement of a mosque near the Ground Zero location is unnecessary and it has become a clear provocation to many people to be violent against mosques across the nation, I have made this morning contact with the office of the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and got the commitment to fly up to New York and meet with him in the company of Pastor Jones."

But BBC News 24 reported tonight that the developers of the Ground Zero site had said in a statement that there were no plans to move the mosque.

A spokesman for Donald Trump tonight said he has offered to buy out one of the major investors in the partnership that controls the site near Ground Zero earmarked for the 13-storey Islamic centre and mosque.

In a letter released by Trump's publicist, the billionaire businessman told Hisham Elzanaty he would buy his stake for 25% more than he had paid.

Trump said he was making the offer to end "a very serious, inflammatory, and highly divisive situation" and attached the condition that backers of the mosque project would need to promise it would be at least five blocks farther away from the World Trade Centre site.

But his offer was immediately rejected.

Lawyer Wolodymyr Starosolsky, representing the site's owners, dismissed Trump's offer as "just a cheap attempt to get publicity and get in the limelight".

Until tonight Mr Jones said he was going ahead with the stunt despite receiving more than 100 death threats.

In a statement, Mr Hague said: "The burning of the Koran would be offensive not just to Muslims but to all supporters of religious freedom and tolerance worldwide.

"Eid is a time of celebration, charitable giving and family gathering.

"To seek to mar it in this calculated way would be selfish and provocative in the extreme.

"We hope that the individuals involved will reconsider and refrain from carrying out this act.

"This is of course a matter for the US authorities and we are in full agreement with the US administration's reaction."

The White House, the Vatican, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus and Tony Blair all urged Mr Jones to call off his protest.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said he "strongly opposed" any attempt to offend members of a religious group and Commons Leader Sir George Young was cheered by MPs as he described the pastor as a "stupid bigot".

The pastor's supporters had posted copies of the Islamic holy book - which Muslims believe should be treated with the utmost respect - to put on a bonfire in Gainesville to mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Mr Jones said it was planned to "send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behaviour".

The PM's spokesman said: "Primarily this is an issue for the US, but clearly the Government's view is that we would not condone the burning of any book.

"We would strongly oppose any attempt to offend any member of any religious or ethnic group. We are committed to religious tolerance."

In a statement, Mr Blair, who founded a Faith Foundation after leaving office to promote understanding between the world's religions, said: "I deplore the act of burning the Koran.

"It is disrespectful, wrong and will be widely condemned by people of all faiths and none. In no way does this represent the view of any sensible person in the West or any other part of the world."

US President Barack Obama said the pastor's plans were a "recruitment bonanza for al Qaida".

In an interview with ABC television, Mr Obama said the book-burning was "completely contrary to our values as Americans. This country has been built on the notion of freedom and religious tolerance".

Euro-MPs joined condemnation during a debate in Strasbourg which emphasised that the protest did not represent Western or Christian views.

Conservative Muslim MEP Sajjad Karim told the House: "The extreme act of Koran burning is the act of one man and his followers alone. His actions should not be identified with the West or Christianity."

The secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Farooq Murad, said: "This proposed burning would be highly offensive. We call on those planning this malicious and mischievous act to refrain from deliberate provocation and allow common sense to prevail."

He added: "Such an action plays into the hands of extremists everywhere, we would do well to repudiate their message of hate by looking to the higher humanitarian principles that exist in the Koran."