TERRY JONES this week became America’s most inconvenient public figure – who seems hell-bent on getting across his message to the world.
The Florida preacher, who initially used Facebook to call on people around the globe to set fire to copies of the Koran, is now at the centre of an international storm.
Jones’s plan to set ablaze thousands of copies of the Muslim holy book to mark September 11 became global news and a major flashpoint for religious tolerance.
The 58-year-old former hotel manager worked as a missionary in Europe for 30 years. He took over as head of the Dove World Outreach Centre, a fundamentalist Christian church in Gainesville, Florida in 1996 and is often seen on the church’s 20-acre compound with a pistol strapped to his hip.
A fan of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – a poster adorns his office walls at the church – Jones launched an online video series called the Braveheart Show, which he uses to preach anti-Islamic sermons to an audience not much larger than the 50 families who belong to the church.
Jones is the author of Islam Is of the Devil. That phrase also adorns several billboards on his church’s property. Jones said he first began using the phrase last year but since 2002, has marked September 11 with sermons about Islam and the dangers he believes are inherent in the faith.
In August 2009, two children, a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old, who belong to Jones’s church, were sent to school wearing T-shirts reading Islam Is of the Devil. They were sent home for dress code violations.
According to the Gainesville Sun, Alachua County officials revoked part of the church’s tax-exempt status earlier this year, saying portions of the 20-acre campus are used in for-profit businesses.
The property is valued at more than $1.6 million (€1.2m), but the 1,700-square-foot taxable portion is worth only $135,000, according to the Gainesville Sun.
This week it became apparent the only spiritual or political figure who would not denounce Jones’s plan was Jones himself. Even the church Jones founded in Germany in the 1980s condemned the Koran-burning plans for his small place of worship.
“We are surprised and shocked at the extreme radicalism being displayed (by Jones) right now on this issue,” Stephan Baar of the Christian Community of Cologne told the Associated Press. The 60-member church kicked out Jones in 2008. Jones’s estranged daughter claims the eviction arose from her father’s reported penchant for dipping into the church’s till to pay his own expenses.
It was also reported Jones was dismissed from the board of the church he founded after allegations he mistreated his followers.
Jones established the German church in 1982 after he “received a sign from God” and planned to use Cologne as a base from which to spread his message throughout Europe.
But he left by 2008, with accusations of having used “psychological pressure” on its 1,000 members to give him a percentage of their earnings.
He reportedly also faked a title as doctor of theology, for which he was fined, and was eventually dismissed by the church board.
Dove World Outreach Centre was founded in 1986 by Donald Northrup and his wife, Dolores, who spent 17 years as missionaries in Africa before returning to the United States.
According to the Dove Centre’s website (which appears to have crashed after the recent worldwide attention), Donald Northrup envisioned the congregation as a “total concept church for the rich, the poor, the young and the old”.
Northrup died in 1996 and it took the church several years to settle on Jones as the new leader.
Jones had been a part-time pastor in his early career before setting up in Cologne.
His daughter, Emma Jones, who still lives in Germany, was one of those accusing her father and stepmother of wrongdoing. Emma Jones has broken with the church, calling it a “cult” that “forced us with oppression to be obedient”.
“(My parents) used mental violence. They’d say, ‘If you’re not obedient, God will punish you’,” Emma Jones told The Gainesville Sun.
One of Jones’ favourite crusades is against homosexuality. During a mayoral run-off in Gainesville last April, Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Centre posted a sign on the property reading, “No homo mayor,” and Jones denounced the candidate, Craig Lowe, in a video: “We’ve got us a homo mayor, with of course a homo agenda” (Lowe won anyway).
Jones is now America’s most inconvenient man but he may have become the biggest inconvenience to his own plans.
The massive publicity he has generated risks tarnishing the reputation of the rest of his fellow believers and alienating them.
And, God knows, there were very few of them to begin with.
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