GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The government turned up the pressure Tuesday on the head of a small Florida church who plans to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, warning him that doing so could endanger U.S. troops and Americans everywhere.
But the Rev. Terry Jones insisted he would go ahead with his plans Saturday, despite criticism from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, the White House, and the State Department, as well as a host of religious leaders.
Jones, who is known for posting signs proclaiming that Islam is the devil's religion, says the Constitution gives him the right to publicly set fire to the book that Muslims consider the word of God.
Gen. David H. Petraeus warned Tuesday that "images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan - and around the world - to inflame public opinion and incite violence." It was a rare example of a military commander taking a position on a domestic political matter.
Jones responded that he was also concerned but was "wondering, 'When do we stop?' " He refused to cancel the protest at his Dove World Outreach Center, a church that espouses an anti-Islam philosophy.
"How many times do we back down?" Jones told the AP. "Instead of us backing down, maybe it's time to stand up." Still, he said he would pray about his decision.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Jones' plan a "disrespectful, disgraceful act." Her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said the administration hoped Americans would stand up and condemn the church's plan.
"We think that these are provocative acts," he said. "We would like to see more Americans stand up and say that this is inconsistent with our American values; in fact, these actions themselves are un-American."
A broad coalition of religious leaders from evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim organizations met Tuesday to condemn the plan to burn the Quran as a violation of American values.
"This is not the America that we all have grown to love and care about," said Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "We have to stand up for our Muslim brothers and sisters and say, 'This is not OK.' "
Jones said he had received more than 100 death threats and had started wearing a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip. The 58-year-old minister said the death threats started not long after he proclaimed in July that he would stage "International Burn-a-Quran Day." Supporters have been mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his church to be incinerated in a bonfire.
Jones, who has about 50 followers, gained some notoriety in his hometown last year when he posted signs in front of his small church declaring, "Islam is of the Devil."
But his Quran-burning plan attracted wider attention. It drew rebukes from Muslim nations and an avalanche of media interview requests just as an emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic center near the ground zero site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
The Quran, according to Jones, is "evil" because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims. "It's hard for people to believe, but we actually feel this is a message that we have been called to bring forth," he said last week.
Muslims consider the Quran to be the word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect, along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect to the Quran is deeply offensive.
Jones' Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. The church follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare against satanic forces.
FBI agents have visited with Jones to discuss concern for his safety. Multiple Facebook pages with thousands of members have popped up hailing him as a hero or blasting him as a dangerous pariah.
The world's leading Sunni Muslim institution of learning, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, accused the church of stirring up hate and discrimination, and called on other American churches to speak out against it. Last month, Indonesian Muslims demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, threatening violence if Jones goes through with the burning.
At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples, and Muslim organizations in Gainesville have mobilized to plan inclusive events - some will read from the Quran at their own weekend services - to counter what Jones is doing. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the church Saturday. Gainesville's new mayor, Craig Lowe, has declared Sept. 11 Interfaith Solidarity Day in the city.
Jones dismisses the response of the other churches as "cowardly." He said that even if they thought burning Qurans was extreme, Christian ministers should be standing with him in denouncing the principles of Islam.