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Pastor of church that burned Koran calls Afghan mob killings 'very tragic'

After first promising to not burn the Koran, Florida Pastor Terry Jones sat as judge at a 'trial' for the holy book last month. The Koran was 'found guilty and a copy was burned,' a church press release said. That news apparently incited the attack on a U.N. compound.

April 01, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Dove World Outreach Center church pastor Terry Jones speaks to the media in Gainesville, Fla., last year. He canceled his plans to burn the Koran last Sept. 11 but apparently followed through in March, spurring a violent riot in Afghanistan on Friday.
Dove World Outreach Center church pastor Terry Jones speaks to the media… (Reuters )

Reporting from Atlanta — The Dove World Outreach Center is a small nondenominational church in Florida that reportedly has no more than a few dozen members. The church website describes it as a "New Testament Church — based on the Bible, the Word of God."

Its online store sells T-shirts, ball caps and coffee mugs with the phrase "Islam is of the devil." According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks groups espousing intolerance, the 25-year-old church in Gainesville regularly professes anti-gay and anti-Muslim sentiments, with members at one point joining in an anti-gay rally with the Westboro Baptist Church, the group that brings signs that say "God Hates" homosexuals to military funerals.

Now news of the church's burning of a Koran has apparently incited a mob in Afghanistan to attack a U.N. compound there, killing at least eight foreign staffers.

Last year, the pastor of the church, Terry Jones, had announced he would burn a Koran on Sept. 11. The announcement drew worldwide condemnation, including remarks by President Obama, who in a nationally televised interview asked Jones to reconsider, saying the burning could lead to "serious violence" against American troops in Muslim nations.

Later, Jones said on the "Today" show that he had changed his mind, and would not burn the holy book, saying he had successfully exposed the more radical strains of Islam.

"We will definitely not burn the Koran, no," he said, adding that he would "absolutely guarantee" that there would never be a Koran burning at his church.

In an email statement released Friday, Jones did not say why he changed his mind yet again. He condemned the violence in Afghanistan, calling it "a very tragic and criminal action," and called on the U.S. government and United Nations to "call these people to justice."

Islam, he said, "is not a religion of peace."

The "International Judge the Qur'an Day," a six-hour event, was held March 20, according to church-affiliated websites.

On its websites, the church "accused" the Koran of "inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities."

"If we are proven wrong, we will issue a PUBLIC APOLOGY," a press release before the event said. "Otherwise if the Koran is found guilty, it will be 'executed' in one of the following ways, chosen by an International Poll: 1) Burning 2) Drowning 3) Shredding or 4) Firing squad."

A subsequent press release, issued March 22, announced that the Koran was "found guilty and a copy was burned inside the building."

A blog post by JoBeth Gerrard, who attended the event, described it as a mock criminal trial attended by about 50 people: An Egyptian Muslim who converted to Christianity acted as a "prosecuting attorney." Another man, reportedly a devout Muslim from Sudan, served as a "defense attorney," with Terry Jones, the pastor, wearing a black robe and presiding as "judge."

A number of so-called expert witnesses were called, including two ex-Muslim converts to Christianity, an Egyptian Christian, and a woman who had been married to a Muslim man who reportedly beat her.

In the end, a 12-person jury found the book guilty on all counts. The kerosene-soaked book was burned in a large vessel shaped like a coffee table.

"If you feel that is wrong, if you do not like that, if you would like to distance yourself from that, that form of punishment, that is... perfectly OK," Jones said at the event, according to a separate blog post. "As we say, we live in America and people are free to do as they please within the confines of the law. If you do not agree with our trial and our burning, we live in a free country, then all you have to do is put together your own trial."

Gerrard, who served on the "jury," said in a phone interview Friday that she was not particularly concerned that the book burning had incited violence.

"Well, no," she said. "Because I keep up with what's going on and I know that [Muslims] are constantly killing people, burning churches and killing Christians. Whether some guy in the U.S. burns a Koran or not, it doesn't make any difference."

Gerrard, 53, an unemployed accountant, said she first heard about the church in September when she heard Jones speak on Sean Hannity's radio show.

"The thing that awoke me to the fact was when I saw the president and the Pentagon and all these world leaders coming out against Terry Jones' [plan] to burn the Koran," she said. "I realized that all these murders of Christians go on a daily basis and you don't hear an international outcry. But one guy in Florida — a nobody — says he's going to burn a Koran... and I thought, 'Something is really wrong with that scenario.' To me, it was the biggest, eye-opening thing to see the whole world has sided, apparently, with the enemies of America."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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