The pastor of a tiny, fringe evangelical church in Florida on Tuesday rebuffed a plea for restraint from Gen. David H. Petraeus, who warned that a plan to burn the Muslim holy book could provoke violence against American troops and citizens overseas.
"Instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs — on the people who would do it," Pastor Terry Jones of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told the Associated Press. "We should address radical Islam and send a very clear warning that they are not to retaliate in any form."
Jones also said he was still praying over his decision and hinted that he might change his mind. "We understand the general's concerns and we are taking those into consideration," he told WOFL-TV in Orlando.
A coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders held a news conference in Washington on Tuesday to condemn Jones' statements and other slurs aimed at Muslims nationwide.
"The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Koran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11," said a statement by religious leaders organized by the Islamic Society of North America.
Religious leaders warned that Muslims overseas would interpret extremists like Jones as reflecting mainstream American attitudes toward Muslims. In Afghanistan on Monday, protesters made a point of wrapping an effigy of Jones in an American flag before burning both the effigy and the flag.
Reaction in the Arab news media was more muted, with most commentators and government officials calling on U.S. citizens to honor religious freedom and condemn Jones.
Petraeus, who directs U.S. forces in Afghanistan, seemed concerned that Jones' insults would enrage ordinary Afghans whom his soldiers are trying to win over as they battle Taliban religious extremists.
The general said Monday that images of burning Korans "would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence."
Weeks of anti-Muslim diatribes by Jones have brought unwelcome publicity to Gainesville, a progressive college town of 125,000 that normally would be focused on the University of Florida's football game Saturday. Jones' antics have also fed into a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide as the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches and U.S. troops continue to die in two wars waged in Muslim nations.
The reverend's threat follows angry protests against a proposed Islamic center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York. In recent weeks, other protesters have objected to planned mosques or Islamic centers in several states, calling them threats to local security.
In Gainesville, news crews have descended on the small stone-and-frame church, located on the city's northern outskirts. Jones' leathery, mustachioed face has appeared on TV networks beamed worldwide, delivering fiery condemnations of Islam.
City officials in Gainesville, where Mayor Craig Lowe has called the Dove World Outreach Center "an embarrassment to our community," have vowed to try to prevent Jones from burning anything on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the attacks.
Jones has been denied a burning permit, but says his lawyers have advised him that his 1st Amendment right to express his beliefs supersedes any local ordinance.
Police and other public safety officials will be on hand Saturday to enforce the city's open-burning law, said Bob Woods, Gainesville's communications manager. The ordinance's list of eight classes of items that may not be burned does not specifically include books, but does include paper.
Asked what the city would do if Jones carried out his threat, Woods replied, "We would respond appropriately. It depends on his actions.''
Lowe asked Gainesville residents to join him "in continuing to assert our community's true character" in response to what he called Jones' "offensive behavior."
Jones said he had received more than 100 death threats and now wears a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip. FBI agents have visited the preacher to voice concerns for his safety, according to the Associated Press.
The world's leading Sunni Muslim institution, Al Azhar University in Egypt, has accused Jones of fomenting hate and bigotry and has asked American churches to condemn him. Indonesian Muslims have demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, threatening violence if any Korans are burned.