msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 9/8/2010 11:54:10 PM ET 2010-09-09T03:54:10

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told NBC News on Wednesday that a Florida church’s plan to burn the Quran this weekend would fuel anti-U.S. hatred rivaling the backlash against the infamous photographs of U.S. abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

In an interview airing later Wednesday on “NBC Nightly News,” Gen. David Petraeus warned that video of the demonstration would be a propaganda gift for anti-U.S. “extremists.”

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“We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib — that they would in a sense be indelible,” Petraeus told NBC’s Brian Williams. “They would be used by those who wish us ill, to incite violence and to enflame public opinion against us and against our mission here in Afghanistan, as well as our missions undoubtedly around the world.”

The minister organizing the book burning, the Rev. Terry Jones, pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., said he was taking account of widespread criticism from Petraeus and many others, but he insisted that he would not be dissuaded.

“Our burning of the Quran is to call attention to the fact that something is wrong,” Jones said at a news conference shortly after msnbc TV aired Petraeus’ comments Wednesday. “We have no intention of canceling.”

Later Wednesday, Jones told reporters that the provider for his church's website had cut off his access to the site.

"We feel it's definitely an indirect attack on our freedom of speech, putting unnecessary pressure upon us," he said.

But two sites associated with the church, http://www.doveworld.org/ and http://www.islamisofthedevil.com/ were still online Wednesday afternoon.

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Earlier, Jones cited letters from U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan urging him to go ahead with the demonstration Saturday on the ninth anniversary of the Islamist terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

“That is the element we are targeting — radical Muslims,” he said.

But Petraeus insisted that the demonstration would “add fuel to already smoldering flames that are out there.”

It is highly unusual for a uniformed officer to express a public opinion on any political matter, and Petraeus said he would not “get into a debate about First Amendment rights — I’ll leave that to others.”

But he said he was speaking out because “what I’m paid to do is to lead a coalition of nearly 150,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and to partner with thousands of civilians from all of the coalition countries.”

“I believe I have an obligation to provide an assessment of the likely effects [of] an action in the United States by a fellow American citizen on the safety of those that I’m privileged to lead and those with whom I’m privileged to work,” he said.

“Such an act would jeopardize the safety of our soldiers and our civilians, even of our Afghan partners, because it’s the police and soldiers of the Afghan forces who would have to confront the kind of demonstrations that we’re afraid would erupt in the wake of such an action,” Petraeus said.

Image: Terry Jones
John Raoux  /  AP file
The Rev. Terry Jones poses for a photo Aug. 30 at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has yet to comment on the planned demonstration, but a spokesman for the Defense Department told NBC News on Wednesday that Gates “strongly endorses” Petraeus’ position.

The State Department has ordered U.S. embassies around the world to assess their security ahead of the planned burning amid fears it could spark anti-American violence. U.S. diplomatic posts have been instructed to convene "emergency action committees" to determine the potential for protests.

Church members stand fast
Jones’ supporters have been mailing copies of the holy text to his church of about 50 followers to be incinerated in a bonfire Saturday.A member of the church, Fran Ingram, told msnbc.com that members had a “stack of about 150” Qurans from across the world. “We are expecting to burn about 200 at least,” she said.

Hillary Clinton condemns pastor's plans

However, asked how she would feel if the church decided to abandon the event, she told msnbc.com: “I would be in agreement ... not like a puppet on a string. ... I believe in the word of God. We are hearing what God wants us to do.”

Jones left that option open in his remarks to NBC News, saying that “If God told us to do it, then I guess he could tell us to do something different.”

Jones said he was concerned about a reaction like that forecast by Petraeus, but he said he was “wondering, ‘When do we stop?’”

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“How much do we back down? How many times do we back down?” Jones asked. “Instead of us backing down, maybe it’s time to stand up. Maybe it’s time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior.”

Widespread opposition
Plans for the demonstration have drawn opposition across the political spectrum, and Jones, 58, said he had received more than 100 death threats and had started wearing a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his hip.

The Vatican denounced the plan Wednesday as “outrageous and grave.”

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said on CNN: “The reverend may have the right to do what he’s doing but it’s not right. It’s not consistent with our values. ... I hope that his conscience and his good sense will take hold.”

Video: Pastor: Quran-burning event will send ‘clear message’

Staffan de Mistura, head of the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan, expressed concern and outrage “in the strongest possible terms,” adding, “If such an abhorrent act were to be implemented, it would only contribute to fueling the arguments of those who are indeed against peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.”

In Afghanistan, Jones’ planned burning continued to provoke outrage.

“It is the duty of Muslims to react,” said Mohammad Mukhtar, a cleric and candidate for the Afghan parliament in the Sept. 18 election. “When their holy book Quran gets burned in public, then there is nothing left. If this happens, I think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world they will be killed.”

Jones’ Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It 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.

Jones gained some local notoriety last year when he posted signs in front of his church declaring “Islam is of the Devil.” But his Quran-burning idea attracted wider attention, drawing rebukes from Muslim nations and at home as an emotional debate was taking shape over the proposed Islamic center near the World Trade Center site in New York.

Hillary Clinton condemns pastor's plans

His actions likely would be protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that speech deemed offensive to many people, even the majority of people, cannot be suppressed by the government unless it is clearly directed to intimidate someone or amounts to an incitement to violence, legal experts said.

Local religious leaders in Gainesville, a college town of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, also criticized Jones. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations have mobilized to plan inclusive events, and some will read from the Quran at their own weekend services. A student group is organizing a protest across the street from the church Saturday.

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Ian Johnston of msnbc.com and Brian Williams, Kerry Sanders and Courtney Kube of NBC News. Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Pastor: 'We want to send a real clear message'

Explainer: What they're saying about Quran burning plan

  • Image: Church leader says no plans to cancel burning of the Koran.
    STEVE JOHNSON  /  EPA
    Dove World Outreach Center pastor Terry Jones speaks at a news conference Wednesday at his Gainesville, Fla., church.

    Many people from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton are weighing in on plans by the Rev. Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 at his Gainesville, Fla., church. The issue has generated anger among Muslims abroad and concern among U.S. military officers of retaliation against troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. See what they have to say:

  • Pastor Terry Jones, at Wednesday news conference:

    Wednesday: "As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing. Our burning of the Quran is to call attention to the fact that something is wrong."

    Thursday: Jones at a news conference said he prayed about the decision and that if the site of the Islamic center and mosque near ground zero was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Quran burning: "The imam has agreed to move the mosque, we have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday. ... We are, of course, now against any other group burning Qurans. We would right now ask no one to burn Qurans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it."

    Later Thursday: "We have not canceled the burning on Saturday; we have suspended it until we get confirmation on the information we were given today. ... We are a little back to square one. I'm praying" to decide what to do next."

  • Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, after news conference with Pastor Jones:

    Image: Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Socie
    PAUL J. RICHARDS  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Imam Muhammad Musri

    "I told the pastor that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved. But there is not any offer from there (New York) that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution."

  • New York Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, in prepared statement:

    Image: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in Dubai
    ALI HAIDER  /  EPA
    American Sufi Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

    "I am glad that Pastor Jones has decided not to burn any Korans. However, I have not spoken to Pastor Jones or Imam Musri. I am surprised by their announcement. We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter. We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony."

  • President Barack Obama, speaking on ABC's ''Good Morning America'' program:

    Image: US Presodent Obama returns from Camp David
    Yuri Gripas  /  Pool via EPA
    President Barack Obama

    "I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance. ... This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida. ... You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who'd be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities."

  • Gen. David Petraeus, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to NBC's Brian Williams:

    Image: US Army Gen. David Petraeus, Comm
    AFP - Getty Images
    Gen. David Petraeus

    “We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib — that they would in a sense be indelible.

    "They would be used by those who wish us ill, to incite violence and to enflame public opinion against us and against our mission here in Afghanistan, as well as our missions undoubtedly around the world.”

  • Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations:

    Image: Clinton Delivers Foreign Policy Speech At Council On Foreign Relations
    Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

    "It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world's attention, but that's the world we live in right now."

    See video.

  • Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate, from her Facebook page:

    Image: Sarah Palin
    Alex Brandon  /  AP
    Former Gov. Sarah Palin

    "I would hope that Pastor Terry Jones and his supporters will consider the ramifications of their planned book-burning event. It will feed the fire of caustic rhetoric and appear as nothing more than mean-spirited religious intolerance. Don’t feed that fire. If your ultimate point is to prove that the Christian teachings of mercy, justice, freedom, and equality provide the foundation on which our country stands, then your tactic to prove this point is totally counter-productive."

  • Mohammad Mukhtar, cleric and candidate for Afghan parliament in Sept. 18 election:

    "It is the duty of Muslims to react. When their holy book Quran gets burned in public, then there is nothing left. If this happens, I think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world they will be killed."

  • Glenn Beck, Fox talk-show host, on his blog:

    Image: Glenn Beck Hosts Controversial "Restoring Honor" Rally At Lincoln Memorial
    Alex Wong  /  Getty Images
    Glenn Beck

    "What is wrong with us? It’s just like the Ground Zero mosque plan. Does this church have the right? Yes. Should they? No. And not because of the potential backlash or violence. Simply because it is wrong. The more I reflect on what happened on 8/28 the more I realize the amazing power of GOOD. ... Burning the Koran is like burning the flag or the Bible. You can do it, but whose heart will you change by doing it? You will only harden the hearts of those who could be moved."

  • Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and presumed 2012 presidential candidate, to Politico:

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney

    “Burning the Quran is wrong on every level. It puts troops in danger, and it violates a founding principle of our republic.”

  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at news conference about construction at Twin Towers site:

    Image: New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
    Jemal Countess  /  Getty Images
    New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

    "In a strange way, I'm here to defend his (Jones') right to do that. I happen to think that it is distasteful. I don't think he would like it if somebody burned a book that in his religion he thinks is holy. We can't say that we're going to apply the First Amendment to only those cases where we are in agreement."

  • Haley Barbour, Mississippi governor and chair of the Republican Governors Association, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast:

    Image: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour
    Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
    Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour

    “I do not think well of the idea of burning anybody’s Koran or Bible or Book of Mormon or anything else. I don’t think there is any excuse for it. ... But I will tell you this. Any issue that takes people's eye off of unemployment, job creation, economic growth, taxes, spending, deficits, debts is taking your eye off the ball.”

  • James Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in a joint statement:

    Image: US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey spea
    Ali Al-saadi  /  AFP - Getty Images
    US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey
    Image: Commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin speaks in Baghdad
    Thaier Al-sudani  /  Reuters
    Commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin

    The plan is "disrespectful, divisive and disgraceful. ... As this holy month of Ramadan comes to a close and Iraqis prepare to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, we join with the citizens of Iraq and of every nation to repudiate religious intolerance and to respect and defend the diversity of faiths of our fellow man."

  • Ann Coulter, author, conservative commentator, on her web site:

    Image: Ann Coulter
    Jason Kempin  /  WireImage file
    Ann Coulter

    "The reason not to burn Qurans is that it's unkind — not to jihadists, but to Muslims who mean us no harm. The same goes for building a mosque at ground zero — in both cases, it's not a question of anyone's 'rights,' it's just a nasty thing to do.

  • Julius Scruggs, the president of the National Baptist Convention, in Kansas City, quoted on Fox4kc.com:

    Image: Rev. Julius Scruggs
    Lance Murphey  /  AP file
    Rev. Julius Scruggs

    "As a Christian pastor I don't advocate burning a Koran. I wouldn't want a Muslim to burn a Bible. There's a better way to disagree, if you want to disagree, than to publicly disgrace a religion by burning its holy book."

  • The Vatican's ''Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue'' statement:

    The "deplorable acts of violence" demonstrated on 9/11 "cannot be counteracted by an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community." The 9/11 anniversary should be a moment "to offer our deep sentiments of solidarity with those who were struck by these horrendous terrorists attacks."

  • Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Sadeghi Golpaygani, according to Fars News, in Wall Street Journal:

    "The dangers of this despicable action are clear to all. It will ignite massive fires of anger and hatred toward America. The U.S. government and president will be held accountable if this happens in their country."

  • Brandon Hensler, Florida ACLU spokesman, to local media:

    "You can't pick and choose who's protected by the Constitution. People would like to see his (Jones') speech shut down, but that would just make him a martyr."

  • Televangelist Pat Robertson, on the 700 Club:

    Image: Pat Robertson
    Michael Smith  /  Getty Images file
    Pat Robertson

    "Can you imagine a pastor that is so egotistical that he would sacrifice the lives of missionaries and soldiers to go forward with it? … This guy is looking for attention. He's looking for publicity. ... I think it's horrible what this guy is doing."

  • Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, on her blog:

    Image: Michelle Malkin
    Steven Lane  /  AP file
    Michelle Malkin

    "Gen. Petraeus says (Jones') provocation endangers the troops. But what's in the Koran is far more of an inflammatory threat to American soldiers than any match with which to light it. What's in the Koran has inspired decades of bloody warfare by Muslim operatives targeting our troops, civilians, and Western infidels around the world. ... Instead of burning the Koran, Americans need to be reading it, understanding it, and educating themselves about the Koran passages, Islamic history, and jihadi context that brought us to this 9th anniversary year of the 9/11 attacks."

  • Statement from spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron:

    Image: British Prime Minister David Cameron
    Pool  /  Reuters
    Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron

    "Primarily this is an issue for the U.S., but clearly the government's view is that we would not condone the burning of any book. ... We would strongly oppose any attempt to offend any member of any religious or ethnic group. ... We are committed to religious tolerance."