A pile of as many as 200 copies of the Koran will be burnt on a patch of lawn outside a small Christian church here on Saturday on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in spite of calls to desist yesterday from the White House and the Vatican, one of its pastors told The Independent last night.
"We are pretty much set on it right now," insisted Dave Ingram, an associate pastor at the Dove Outreach Centre in Gainesville, which plans to stage what it is calling its "International Burn-A-Koran Day". He and the senior pastor at the church, Terry Jones, did not rule out suspending the event if called to do so "by God".
The campaign against the church, which has a congregation of only about 50, to change course continued to mount. The Vatican issued a statement calling the planned incineration "outrageous and grave". Mr Jones said he had received more than 100 death threats, and he and his associates were wearing guns in holsters.
The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said that he fully supported the message released this week by his commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, arguing that torching the Korans would worsen tensions between Islamic countries and the West and endanger US soldiers on the ground. General Petraeus spoke yesterday with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, about the matter. On Monday in the Afghan capital, Kabul, several hundred people, mostly students, demonstrated against the planned Koran-burning, chanting "Death to America."
Also in Washington, David Axelrod, the senior political adviser to President Barack Obama, reiterated the determination of the White House to prevent the torching of the books. "The Reverend may have the right to do what he's doing but it's not right," he said. "It's not consistent with our values... I hope that his conscience and his good sense will take hold."
Mr Ingram, who also writes a blog on the Dove Centre website, said the Korans destined for the bonfire were mostly either bought by the church in shops or have been sent in by people supporting the stunt. He also defended the decision to stage it on Saturday, which, as the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is already a sensitive date.
"The reason to do it on 9/11 was that we felt that would bring the most awareness," he said. "It relates to 9/11 because the Koran and the teaching of Mohamed helped to lead to what happened on 9/11 in 2001. There are teachings of Mohamed that lead to such acts."
As for moving forward with the torching in the face of so much opposition, he said we "feel very strongly about the message and we do have a lot of supporters who get what we are doing, a lot of people who know what we know in our hearts that this is right and that somebody has to speak out."
The purpose, Mr Ingram explained, was to force Americans to "seek the truth" about Islam and its teachings and "do it right now".
"We believe that Islam is dangerous. We see that in history and we see that in the Koran and in Mohamed's life. Our message is not against Muslims. There are moderate Muslims, people who say they are Muslims and they are perfectly moderate and we are not against their right to practise their faith. On the other hand, we do see that Islam, the teaching, is wrong and is dangerous and is violent. We want to send a clear message that this is the case."
It is not just political and military leaders in the United States speaking out against the planned burning. Religious leaders from all faiths in America have also coalesced to condemn it. In Gainesville itself, preachers from neighbouring churches said they planned counter-events, for example the reciting of Islamic prayers as part of their Christian services.
Craig Lowe, mayor of Gainesville, called the church "a tiny, fringe group and an embarrassment to our community. "They are opposed to the true character of Gainesville," he said on his Facebook site.
Far away in Connecticut, leaders of the city council in Hartford, its largest metropolis, said that all council meetings in September would open with Islamic prayers by an imam.
The controversy over the Koran-burning plan is all the more intense because it comes amid another jarring debate in America about the acceptability or otherwise of plans to build a mosque and Islamic community centre in Manhattan a few blocks from Ground Zero. Both sides in the increasingly bitter argument are planning rallies for Saturday at the site of the proposed centre.
In Gainesville, Mr Ingram did not rule out that the burning could be put off or scrapped. "We are of course still praying about it and if we feel we need to change our plans or God tells us to change our plans we are prepared to do it," he said.
The church had been in trouble with authorities previously over a bid to send members' children to school wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Islam is of the Devil." Local schools barred the shirts.
Views on Terry Jones
It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world's attention, but that's the world we live in right now.
[Violence] cannot be counteracted by an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community.
The Reverend may have the right to do what he's doing but it's not right. It's not consistent with our values.... I hope that his conscience and his good sense will take hold.
David Axelrod, senior adviser to Barack Obama
It is the duty of Muslims to react. When their holy book gets burned in public, then there is nothing left. If this happens, the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world, they will be killed.
Mohammad Mukhtar, Afghan cleric
I have hardly the words that somebody would do that to somebody's religious book.
If this happens there will be chaos in Afghanistan and being a Muslim, if we don't defend the Koran, then what else can we do?
Rajab Ali, Kabul resident
It is disrespectful, wrong and will be widely condemned by people of all faiths and none... Rather than burn the Koran, I would encourage people to read it.
Tony BlairReuse content