GAINESVILLE, Florida (AFP) – The United States appeared powerless to stop a Florida church from burning hundreds of Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 despite fears of global repercussions.
The White House added its voice to growing concern from military leaders that the incendiary move by a group of American evangelicals could trigger outrage around the Islamic world and endanger the lives of US soldiers.
"It puts our troops in harm's way. Any type of activity like that that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Tuesday.
He was reiterating comments by top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who warned burning the holy book of Islam would provide propaganda for insurgents.
"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort," Petraeus told The Wall Street Journal in comments echoed later by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
But a small Florida church has vowed to mark Saturday's ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning Korans as they remember the almost 3,000 people killed by Al-Qaeda hijackers.
|Indonesian demonstrators rally outside the US embassy in Jakarta on September 4 to protest threats by the US Christian group Dove World Outreach Center to burn a Koran to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. AFP file|
Although the fire authorities turned down an application a few weeks ago from pastor Terry Jones to hold the open-air burning ceremony, police cannot intervene until they actually light the 200 Korans.
Even then, no arrests would be made as contravening local ordinances is only a misdemeanor, and citations -- fines and warnings -- are issued in such cases.
Jones said the Koran torching aimed "to remember those who were brutally murdered on September 11," and to send a warning "to the radical element of Islam."
The move comes against a backdrop of "Islamophobia" driven by plans to build an Islamic cultural center in New York close to Ground Zero, the site where the World Trade Center stood before it was destroyed in the 2001 attacks.
US Attorney General Eric Holder met religious leaders Tuesday to discuss ways of stemming the anti-Islam tide, with calls from the broad coalition of faiths to make a strong speech condemning hate crimes.
Muslim Advocates executive director Farhana Khera said after the meeting that Holder had described the Koran burning plan as "idiotic and dangerous," but regretted that in itself the ceremony was not a violation of federal law.
Saturday's anniversary is also set to coincide with the festivities for the Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley insisted freedom of religion was a pillar of American society, adding "the potential act of burning a Koran... is contrary to our values, contrary to how civil society has emerged in the country."
But Jones, who heads the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville Florida, remained defiant, saying his group was taking Petraeus's words seriously, but "we have firmly made up our mind" to go ahead.
"Instead of us being blamed for what other people will do or might do, why don't we send a warning to them? Why don't we send a warning to radical Islam and say, don't do it. If you attack us, if you attack us, we will attack you."
Al-Qaeda militants plowed two hijacked commercial airlines into the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, destroying the twin towers and raining terror on the city.
Another plane was flown into the Pentagon outside Washington, while a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers overpowered the hijackers.
Religious bigotry was roundly condemned at a press conference called by the coalition of inter-faith leaders meeting with Holder.
"To those who would exercise derision... bigotry, open rejection of our fellow Americans for their religious faith, I say shame on you," said Richard Cizik, one of the country's most prominent evangelical leaders.
"We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our communities. And by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship," added Rabbi Nancy Kreimer.
There have already been protests in the Afghan capital Kabul and in Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim-majority country -- against the provocative plans to burn the Koran.
And Iran has warned it could unleash an uncontrolled Muslim response.
The Vatican newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, in a commentary Tuesday condemned the plans in an article "No one should burn the Koran."