GAINESVILLE: A Florida pastor put on hold Thursday plans to burn hundreds of Qurans and said he would cancel the event if a controversial mosque project near Ground Zero in New York is relocated.
In a day of high-stakes religious brinkmanship, radical evangelist Terry Jones at first announced he had cancelled Saturday's ceremony, which world leaders fear could ignite a fierce Muslim backlash around the globe. But when his claims of a deal over a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York dissolved in acrimony, he threatened to go ahead with the incendiary ceremony to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"I will be flying up there on Saturday to meet with the imam at the Ground Zero mosque," Jones said initially. "The American people do not want the mosque there, and, of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Quran."
But the imam leading the New York project quickly denied any agreement to move the planned mosque, which is slated for a building two and half blocks from the site of former World Trade Center which was struck by 9/11 hijackers. "I am glad that Pastor Jones has decided not to burn any Qurans," Feisal Abdul Rauf said in a statement to CNN, but added: "We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter."
Jones, head of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has threatened an international crisis with his promise to immolate the Muslim holy book on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Concern is so high that US Defense Secretary Robert Gates put in a personal phone call to Jones to try and get him to change him mind, warning that the Quran burning would put US soldiers' lives at risk. This rare decision by President Barack Obama's administration to cede to Jones's demand for direct contact followed growing worries of a disaster for US interests worldwide.
The State Department warned citizens of "the potential for anti-US demonstrations in many countries... some of which may turn violent." Global police agency Interpol predicted "tragic consequences," with experts fearing riots in Muslim countries similar to those in response to the 2005 publication of cartoons blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).
Initial relief at Jones's apparent retreat turned to dismay when he renewed his threat to go ahead with the ceremony and the supposed deal with Rauf unraveled.
Orlando-based imam Mohammed Musri, who played the crucial role of go-between in Saturday's proceedings, said he had made it abundantly clear to Jones he could provide no assurances about the mosque project. "What we agreed is, we had a commitment from the office of the imam in New York to set up a meeting and to invite pastor Jones to present this proposal," Musri told CNN. "We did not have an agreement from them, from the imam himself or anyone in his office, that the project will be moved or canceled in New York," he said. "But when we stepped out in front of the cameras, he stretched that to say that I gave him a commitment or assurances, or as he puts it, guarantees, that that would happen. I did not. I have no control over the project in New York."
Rauf, a cleric who travels the world on behalf of the State Department to improve US-Muslim relations, says the center -- two blocks from Ground Zero -- would be used to promote inter-faith peace. But the plan has become a major controversy ahead of midterm Congressional elections on November 2.
More radical opponents accuse the site of amounting to a monument honouring the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks.
Jones had cast himself as having single-handedly resolved the standoff thanks to his threat to desecrate the Quran.
"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."
Later, once the organisers denied any bargain, Jones, expressing disappointment and shock that Musri had perhaps lied to him, resurrected the specter of the Quran-burning if no deal is done. "We would be forced to rethink our decision, because we cancelled it based upon his (Musri's) word."
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