PRESIDENT Barack Obama warned that an obscure US Christian pastor’s plan to burn the Koran tomorrow to mark September 11 could provoke al-Qaida suicide bombings, as Asian countries urged Washington to prevent the act.
“This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida,” Obama said in an ABC television interview. “You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities.”
Terry Jones, leader of a Protestant church of about 30 members in Gainesville, Florida, is planning to burn copies of the Islamic holy book tomorrow, the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
His threat has caused alarm around the world and raised tensions over the anniversary, which this year coincides with the Muslim Eid al-Fitr festival ending the fasting month of Ramadan. The US is also gripped by debate over plans for an Islamic centre near the attack site in Manhattan.
India, prone to sectarian strife, called on the US government yesterday to stop Jones from carrying out his plan. The president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, urged Obama to step in personally.
“We hope that the US authorities will take strong action to prevent such an outrage being committed,” Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a statement. He asked the media to refrain from showing pictures of the burning.
In Jakarta, an aide to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he had written to Obama asking him to intervene.
“President Yudhoyono thinks that if this was allowed to happen, it will disturb world peace,” Heru Lelono said.
But Obama said there was little that could be done under US law to confront the minister, other than citing him under local bylaws against public burning.
Jones has said he sees Koran-burning as a way of confronting Islamist terrorism. But his plans have been widely condemned by US religious, political and military leaders, who say it is jeopardising the security of US military personnel abroad.
“I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan,” Obama said on Good Morning America.
“We’re already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat that he’s making,” the president said, urging Jones to listen to “those better angels”.
Two top US commanders in Afghanistan have said the plan by Jones’s Dove World Outreach Centre risked undermining Obama’s efforts to reach out to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. General David Petraeus, commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, said the act could endanger his troops.
The Convocation of American Churches in Europe also said Christians living in majority Muslim countries would be at risk of reprisals.
In the United States, an FBI intelligence bulletin dated August 19 said the Koran-burning “might inspire retaliatory attacks against US facilities overseas”.
The World Council of Churches, representing 349 branches of Christianity, added its voice to condemnations of Jones’ plans.
“This call has been firmly rejected and condemned by the WCC and its member churches, ecumenical partners, including in the United States as well as by people of faith and good will elsewhere,” the umbrella group said in a statement.
Jewish leaders have also condemned the action, saying it recalled the Nazi German burning of books in the 1930s, a prelude to the Holocaust.
“The burning of the book holy to the world’s Muslims is morally repugnant,” said the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights organisation founded by a famous hunter of Nazi war criminals.
Streets were quiet in the Afghan capital yesterday as Eid al-Fitr celebrations approached. But police have been put on alert after angry demonstrations earlier this week when hundreds of Afghans gathered outside a Kabul mosque chanting “Death to America”.
Such protests have turned violent in Afghanistan several times in the past few years, with dozens of people killed as security forces fought to regain control.
One such outburst was sparked when a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad in 2005.
Pakistan “urged the international community to discourage this fanatic approach and take steps to stop these fundamentalists,” a foreign office spokesman said.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved