A small, Florida-based church's plan to burn copies of the Quran on Saturday has triggered outrage in the Muslim world and a warning from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan that it could generate a deadly backlash against Americans.
Gen. David Petraeus said Tuesday that the "Burn the Koran Day" event to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could endanger U.S. soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan and would be welcomed by Islamic extremists for its propaganda value.
"Images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan and around the world to inflame public opinion and incite violence," Petraeus wrote in an e-mail to reporters.
'We Think It's Time To Turn The Tables'
The Rev. Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he agrees his plan to burn the Muslim holy book could provoke violent opposition. But he said that America should quit apologizing for its actions and bowing to kings.
"We think it's time to turn the tables, and instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs on the people who would do it," he said. "And maybe instead of addressing us, we should address radical Islam and send a very clear warning that they are not to retaliate in any form."
Jones' evangelical Christian church, which espouses anti-Islam philosophy, made headlines last year after distributing T-shirts proclaiming "Islam is of the Devil." The congregation's website estimates it has about 50 members, but the church has leveraged the Internet with a Facebook page and blog devoted to its Quran-burning plans.
Although the Dove World Outreach Center has been denied a permit to set a bonfire, it has vowed to proceed with the burning.
Any damage or show of disrespect to the Quran is deeply offensive to Muslims, who consider it the word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect. The same is true for any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2005, 15 people died and scores were wounded in riots in Afghanistan sparked by a Newsweek story alleging that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed a Quran down the toilet to get information from prisoners. The story was later retracted.
Petraeus warned that images of Americans burning a Quran would inflame anti-Americanism much like when photos surfaced in 2004 of U.S. service members abusing detainees at Abu Graib.
"Such images could, in fact, be used as were the photos from [Abu Ghraib]. And this would, again, put our troopers and civilians in jeopardy and undermine our efforts to accomplish the critical mission here in Afghanistan," he said.
On Monday, several hundred people in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, chanted "Death to America" and burned U.S. flags and an effigy of Jones as they denounced the church's plan. Demonstrators also threw rocks at a passing U.S. military convoy until organizers ordered them to stop.
The planned book-burning has drawn condemnation from the world's pre-eminent Sunni Muslim institution of learning, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, whose Supreme Council accused the church of stirring up hate and discrimination and called on other American churches to speak out against it.
Condemnation Of 'Uncivilized Plan'
In a show of interfaith solidarity, a group of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to denounce the Quran-burning as well as the recent controversy over a proposed Islamic center near the former World Trade Center site.
Richard Cizik, founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, warned Jones and others like him to "watch out, for if you so casually trample on the religious rights of others, your own children may someday see their religious liberties deprived."
"As an evangelical, I say ... you bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ," Cizik said.
The Wahid Institute and several other Islamic groups also have called on the U.S. government "to immediately stop the uncivilized plan [that] not only constitutes a violation of human rights, but can also trigger religious tension and conflict all over the world," according to The Jakarta Post.
Indonesian Muslims demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta last month, threatening violence if Jones goes through with his plan.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast warned of the impact of a Quran-burning in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.
"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," Mehmanparast was quoted as saying.
An Al-Jazeera article Tuesday titled "The Cost of Burning the Quran" said that if Jones "wished to garner global attention for his actions, he got exactly that" but noted that he had "received fewer than $1,000 in support of his planned protest, and that he receives countless death threats daily."
It also quoted U.S.-based political commentator Ahmad Tharwat as saying that xenophobia was "a huge part" of American culture.
"Whenever there's a perception that America is somehow anti-Muslim, that harms our image and interests around the Islamic world," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights group that has worked to discredit Jones and counter his message.
With reporting from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Kabul and Teri Schultz in Brussels. Material from The Associated Press was also used in this report. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]