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Afghan anti-U.S. demonstrations grow over Quran

Protests by thousands of angry Afghans over plans by an obscure U.S. church to burn copies of the Quran grew on Friday, with demonstrations spreading to the capital and at least five provinces, officials said.
Image: Afghans shout anti-U.S. slogans
Afghans shout anti-U.S. slogans as they burn tires and block a highway during a protest in reaction to a small American church's plan to burn copies of the Quran, at Jalalabad, east of Kabul, on Friday.Rahmat Gul / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Protests by thousands of angry Afghans over plans by an obscure U.S. church to burn copies of the Quran grew on Friday, with demonstrations spreading to the capital and at least five provinces, officials said.

One protester was shot dead outside a German-run NATO base in northeast Afghanistan and NATO said it was investigating.

Terry Jones, Christian pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida, called off the Quran-burning plans after drawing international condemnation and a warning from President Barack Obama that it could provoke al-Qaida suicide bombings and other Islamist violence around the world.

But Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center, later accused a Muslim leader of lying to him about moving a planned Islamic center in New York.

"Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision," he told CNN. "So as of right now, we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had called Jones directly to urge him not to go ahead, a Pentagon official said.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates had expressed "grave concern" in the brief telephone call with Jones that the Quran burning "would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan."

A crowd, estimated at 10,000 by a government official, poured out of mosques into the streets of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan in Afghanistan's northeast, after special prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The protester who was killed was shot when a smaller group attacked a German-run NATO base in Faizabad, hurling stones at the outpost, a spokesman for the provincial government said.

Afghan security forces rushed to the scene to restore order and three police were hurt when hit by stones thrown by the crowd, the spokesman said.

A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul said ISAF was aware of protests happening in Faizabad and were checking the incident.

Eight Christian aid workers were killed by unidentified gunmen in remote and rugged Badakhshan last month. Similar protests over perceived desecration of Muslim symbols have led to dozens of deaths in Afghanistan in recent years, including after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad in 2005.

In eastern Nangahar, tribal chiefs threatened to attack NATO bases near the Pakistan border if Jones went ahead with the plan. "If they do this, we will attack American bases and close the highway used by convoys supplying American troops," a cleric named Zahidullah told Reuters.

At mosques in the capital, clerics also labeled the plan dangerous. "Muslims are ready to sacrifice their sons, fathers and mothers for Islam and the Quran," one preacher said at one Kabul mosque to cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest).

'Rethink decision'
Jones said he had spoken to Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, and had been assured that a mosque planned for a site in New York near the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks would be moved.

Musri and the sponsor of the New York mosque later denied such an agreement had been reached.

The proposed location of the New York center has drawn opposition from many Americans who say it is insensitive to families of victims of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000.

Jones said he would fly to New York on Saturday with Musri to meet the New York imam at the center of the controversy, Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Sharif el-Gamal, project developer for the New York mosque, said in a statement it was untrue the center was to be moved.

International condemnation
World leaders joined President Barack Obama in denouncing Jones's plan to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on Saturday.

The international police agency Interpol warned governments worldwide of an increased risk of terrorist attacks if the burning went ahead, and the U.S. State Department issued a warning to Americans traveling overseas.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry on Friday condemned the planned action as "a provocative and satanic act," according to Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency.

On Thursday, the United Nations' top diplomat in Afghanistan told Reuters protests over the plan could force the delay of parliamentary elections set for Sept. 18.

The poll is seen as a key test of stability in Afghanistan before Obama conducts a war strategy review in December. Obama has said the plan, dismissed by conservatives and liberals alike as an attention-seeking stunt, would be a "recruitment bonanza" for al-Qaida.

Obama has sought to improve relations with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

The United States has powerful legal protections for the right to free speech and there was little law enforcement authorities could do to stop Jones from going ahead, other than citing him under local bylaws against public burning.