A small evangelical Christian group in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida on Saturday plans to burn Korans as a protest against violent Islamic extremists. The day marks the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. The church has a right to burn the holy book under the U.S. constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. But other religious leaders in Florida fear the event will send the wrong message about religious tolerance.
The firewood is cut at Dove World Outreach Center. And the church’s pastor, Reverend Terry Jones, says despite receiving death threats, he and other church members plan to burn 200 Korans on Saturday. “International Burn a Koran Day. This, we only put up because our smaller sign was vandalized many times,” he said.
Reverend Jones says he and other members now carry pistols to defend the congregation of some 12 people.
He says the goal of burning Korans is to send a message to al-Qaida, the violent Islamic group that carried out the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington nine years ago.
“That led us to International Burn a Koran Day, to honor those who were murdered at that time [September 11th]. And to put a real clear message out to Islam that we will not tolerate, we do not want them trying to push their agenda on us, in other words Sharia law,” he said.
Reverend Jones says Islamic extremism poses a threat to the United States and the world. But he says moderate Muslims should feel free to practice their faith in the country. He says the church’s message is not intended for all Muslims.
“We are not hateful toward Muslims. We are not aiming this at Muslims, we are aiming this at Sharia law.”
In Afghanistan, some people feel the event is aimed directly at Muslims everywhere. Hundreds rallied in Kabul to denounce Jones and any desecration of the Koran.
And top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, says the Koran burning may lead Islamic militants to launch new attacks on western troops.
In Florida, Muslim leaders at one mosque are calling for a tempered response.
The Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke Pines gathered congregants and leaders of other religions to discuss the planned Koran burning. Reverend Renwick Bell is the pastor of a nearby church. He says very few Christians would support burning the Koran.
“When a Christian minister does something like this, I like to ignore it, yet it does cause fervor in the world. I just think he [Jones] is doing something without thinking about it, or trying to get publicity,” he said.
Leaders of Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish communities agreed. Imam Shaikh Shafayat Mohamed organized the event to foster understanding across religious lines. He said congregants needed to hear the message of other religious leaders who oppose the Koran burning. “Having them send a message that, this is not American. It is not a Christian thing, it is not a Hindu thing, it is not a Buddhist thing, it is not a Jewish thing. You [Jones] are really misrepresenting world religions and Americans from their point of view,” he said.
For many congregants, the idea of desecrating the Koran may inspire strong emotions. But Anthony Abdullah Sanpedro says Muslims and others need to work past those feelings. “It does anger me, but we have to come to a better solution. Just burning the Koran and Muslims getting mad about it is not going to make anything better,” he said.
Mosque leaders say events like this one can bring different religions together and ease tensions, which they fear will be provoked by the Koran burning. VOA