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White House warns Florida church not to burn Koran

Stunt to mark 9/11 anniversary would risk US troops in Afghanistan, says Petraeus

The already simmering cauldron of clashing emotions between Christians and Muslims risked bubbling over yesterday as the White House intervened to try to stop a small Florida church from burning copies of the Koran.

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said that the anti-Islamic protest – threatened by an evangelical church with just 50 members – could endanger the lives of American soldiers.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added her disapproval at a dinner in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths," Mrs Clinton said.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, also said the images of a burning Koran would be used by extremists to inflame public opinion and incite violence. His remarks were echoed by a statement by the US embassy in Kabul condemning the church's plans. Iran issued its own stern warning against the bonfire, which is planned for this Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The planned torching of the scriptures by the Florida church – the so-called Dove World Outreach Center – has already re-awakened memories of the publication by a Danish newspaper in 2005 of a satirical cartoon lampooning the Prophet Mohamed which triggered protests outside western embassies around the world.

In the same year, rioting was sparked around the world by a Newsweek article detailing how US interrogators were taking copies of the Koran into bathrooms inside Guantanamo Bay and threatening to flush them down toilets in an effort to make detainees talk. The magazine retracted the report but only after 15 people died in the violence.

There were expressions of disdain and concern that the torching of the copies of the Koran will fan fresh hatred from both civilian and military leaders. The Muslim community in the US is already under unusual stress because of the political firestorm unleashed after efforts by a Manhattan imam and a developer to open a mosque and Islamic community centre close to Ground Zero.

Fresh protests for and against the mosque are set for this Saturday at the site of the proposed centre. This prompted one group of relatives of 9/11 victims last night to call for a truce over the weekend.

The Nato Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, also condemned the proposed Koran-burning, calling it disrespectful. The State Department went a step further, calling it "un-American" and suggesting it could additionally put diplomats and American civilians travelling overseas at risk. "We would like to see more Americans stand up and say that this is inconsistent with our American values; in fact, these actions themselves are un-American."

So far, the leader of the church, in Gainesville, Florida, has made no indication of a willingness to cancel the burning, but said he was taking the words of Mr Petraeus into account.

"We have firmly made up our mind, but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it," said Terry Jones, who has a website that offers "Ten reasons to burn a Koran" and also promotes a book he has written called Islam is of the Devil. Last year the church made headlines by offering T-shirts for sale bearing the book's name.

Mr Jones told CNN: "We are weighing the thing that we're about to do. What it possibly could cause. What are we trying to get across."

General Petraeus said that the proposed burning could damage relations between the West and the Islamic world in much the same way that the publication of photographs of the abuse of Muslim inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq did four years ago.

That the church's action could also create new diplomatic problems for Washington became clear as Iran made its own contribution to the controversy. "We advise Western countries to prevent the exploitation of freedom of expression to insult religious sanctities, otherwise the emotions of Muslim nations cannot be controlled," a foreign ministry spokesman in Tehran, Ramin Mehmanparast, told reporters.

Meanwhile protests against the Florida church have already began to break out, notably with a march by hundreds of demonstrators in Kabul on Monday. On Sunday, thousands gathered outside the US embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, to show their anger at the proposed burning.

The preacher: A small church in the heart of small town USA

The global reverberations from the Dove World Outreach Center's anti-Islam campaign belie its insignificance, even in the small Florida town of Gainesville where the centre attracts barely 50 congregants.

Founded in 1986, the church is now run by a former hotel manager, Terry Jones, a lanky preacher with a bushy white moustache who is treated as a fringe figure even in Gainesville (population 125,000). Under his guidance, Dove is trying to change the evangelical church's role "from a local church to an apostolic church with a world vision".

There are an estimated 115,000 white evangelical churches in the United States that wield significant political clout. The movement's umbrella group, the National Association of Evangelicals, has also urged the group to give up its protest.

The church's website claims that it seeks to "expose Islam" as a "violent and oppressive religion" and to raise awareness "that the Koran is leading people to hell".

Mr Jones, however, told the New York Times that he had no experience of what the Koran said. He said that he had received more than 100 death threats and has now started wearing a pistol.

The church runs similarly virulent campaigns such as "abortion is murder; homosexuality is sin", and also ran a "no homo for mayor" campaign. Its "International Burn a Koran Day" Facebook page has attracted more than 8,400 online followers. An opposing group has almost twice as many followers.

Local opposition has been swift: two dozen churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organisations in Gainesville have planned inclusive events to counter Mr Jones's protest.

Holly Williams