Two of the top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have criticized plans by a small Christian church to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States by burning copies of the Koran.
The plan is envisioned by an evangelical church with about 50 members in the city of Gainesville, Florida, that calls itself the Dove World Outreach Center.
Local authorities have refused to give the church a permit to stage the book-burning rally. They say the plan will violate fire-safety rules. But Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, says he intends to carry out the book burning on schedule.
General David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said Jones's church risked undermining efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama to reach out to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.
Petraeus said Jones's plan was "precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses" to cause "significant problems" -- not just in Afghanistan, but everywhere in the world where the United States is engaged with the Islamic community.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated comments by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
"We know that that type of activity is being transmitted back to places like Afghanistan, where General Petraeus obviously is our lead commander," Gibbs said. "As he said, it puts our troops in harm's way, and any type of activity like that -- that puts our troops in harm's way -- would be a concern to this administration."
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen today echoed Petraeus's concerns, and condemned the plans by the church.'Jeopardize And Undermine'
The commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell, told journalists in Kabul on September 6 that the small church could also trigger retaliation against U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan.
"Their very actions will, in fact, jeopardize the safety of the young men and women who are serving in uniform over here," Caldwell said, "and also undermine the very mission that we are trying to accomplish."
General David Petraeus: Koran burning could cause "significant problems."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also has criticized the plan as an "offensive initiative," saying in a statement that the U.S. government "in no way condones such acts of disrespect against the religion of Islam and is deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups."
The U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that while U.S. citizens were entitled to freedom of expression, burning the Koran contradicted the core U.S. value of religious tolerance. He said the act would be in line with "the radicals and religious bigots who attacked [the U.S.] on 9/11."
"We would like to see more Americans stand up and say, 'This is inconsistent with our American values,'" he said. “In fact, these actions themselves are un-American."
If the church follows through on its threats, Crowley added that he hoped the act would not be interpreted throughout the world as a reflection of the United States' view of Islam.
"We would hope that the rest of the world will judge us not by the actions of one pastor or 50 followers, but judge us by a tradition that goes back to our founding. We did not indict entire countries or an entire religion over the actions of 9/11 and we would hope that the rest of the world does not indict the United States for the actions of one fringe element in Florida," he said.
The warnings from U.S. officials follow an angry protest in Kabul on September 6 by several hundred Afghans who carried banners with anti-U.S. slogans and chanted "Death to America" as they denounced the planned book burning.'Stop Desecrating The Koran'
The Kabul protest was comprised mostly of Islamic-school students like Wahidullah Nori, who gathered outside the Milad ul-Nabi Mosque in western Kabul.
"We're gathered here today to express our concern to America and we will continue with our demonstration every day," Nori said. "We call on America to stop desecrating our holy Koran."
Protests have also taken place in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia.
In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called on Western countries to "prevent the exploitation of freedom of expression to insult religious sanctities." Otherwise, he said, "the emotions of Muslim nations cannot be controlled."
In comments broadcast by CNN, Jones of Dove World Outreach Center said it would be "tragic" if anybody's life was lost as a result of his church's planned Koran burning. But Jones said he and his congregation felt they "must sooner or later stand up" to the "fear and hatred being propagated by Islam."
The church's website says it seeks to "expose Islam" as a "violent and oppressive religion." It also displays a sign reading "Islam is of the Devil." The church made headlines last year when it distributed T-shirts printed with the same statement.Deadly Demonstrations
Reports about the desecration of the Koran by non-Muslims anywhere in the world have caused outrage in Afghanistan and other conservative Islamic countries. There have been frequent demonstrations and riots in Afghanistan in recent years amid rumors about foreign soldiers desecrating copies of the Koran.
In January, Afghan troops shot dead eight demonstrators and wounded 13 in southern Helmand Province during a riot that was triggered by rumors that foreign troops had desecrated a copy of the Koran during a raid. There have also been deadly demonstrations in Afghanistan against depictions of the Prophet Muhammad by newspaper editorial cartoonists in the West.
But there also has been growing anger against Muslims in the United States by conservatives and Christian extremists, who blame the religion of Islam for Al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from the site of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York have generated weeks of controversy and spawned a spate of anti-Islamic incidents in recent weeks, including the desecration of prayer rugs in a New York City mosque and the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver.
Opponents of the building plan say it is insensitive to families of the victims of Al-Qaeda. But the city of New York and Obama have supported the plan, saying it would be discriminatory to blame all Muslims -- instead of just radical Islamic extremists -- for the September 11 terrorist attacks. written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports