Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who announced Thursday he was canceling plans to burn 200 copies of the Koran in a protest against Islam, back-pedaled on Thursday night and said he was just putting his plans "on hold" for the time being. On NBC's "Today" show Friday he restated that the matter is up in the air and contingent on a meeting he expects to have soon with the planner of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York City.
The preacher, who caused an international uproar when he said he would burn Korans on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, said Thursday he had been promised that the center would be moved.
But that night, he said he'd been given false information. Outside his church in Gainesville, Jones said that the imam he thought he had reached a deal with "clearly, clearly lied to us," according to Newser and other sources.
Jones drew inspiration for his plan to burn copies of the Koran from the Bible, and for a short time on Thursday, it appeared he may have found in those same Scriptures an exit strategy for an increasingly untenable stance.
Jones, pastor of a small (50 members at most) Pentecostal-style, fundamentalist church, had drawn so much heat for his vows to burn the Koran to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that even Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck were telling him it was a bad idea -- a rare point of agreement between Tea Party conservatives and President Obama.
(In yet another twist to the story, the website for Cape Central High School
in Cape Girardeau, Mo., points out that Jones and conservative firebrand radio host Rush Limbaugh were both members of the Class of 1969.)
When Jones said he was backing down from the Koran-burning event at a news conference
late Thursday afternoon, he portrayed his shift as a strategic victory by claiming that the leader of the controversial plan to build an Islamic center near ground zero had agreed to move its location.
Immediately, there were conflicting accounts of whether Jones' claim had any validity.
Jones told reporters that the head of the group hoping to build the Islamic center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, assured him he would move the mosque, and Jones said he would fly to New York on Saturday for the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and meet with Rauf.
"The American people do not want the mosque there, and, of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran," said Jones, who heads the Dove World Outreach Center. "The imam has agreed to move the mosque. We have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday."
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Jones said an imam who heads the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Muhammad Musri, was the intermediary with Rauf, though Musri said only that Rauf agreed to meet with him and Jones on Saturday "to discuss and come to a decision on relocating the mosque in New York."
And shortly after Jones spoke, Rauf released a statement insisting there was no deal to move the Islamic center, known as the Cordoba House, or Park51, from its proposed site several blocks from ground zero.
"I am glad that Pastor Jones has decided not to burn any Korans," Rauf said
. "However, I have not spoken to Pastor Jones. 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."
But Jones was insistent that he heard what he heard. "I asked him three times, and I have witnesses," Jones said of his conversation with Musri and Rauf. "If it's not moved, then I think Islam is a very poor example of religion. I think that would be very pitiful. I do not expect that."
Earlier, Jones had said he would cancel the book burning if he were to receive contact directly
from the White House or the Defense Department, and on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Jones, the Pentagon told The Associated Press
Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates expressed "his grave concern" that the burning of the holy book of Islam would put the lives of U.S. troops at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Morrell would not characterize Jones' response.
The week's back-and-forth has given Jones cover for backing away from what was looking like a disastrous move for all sides. And he may have Palin and Beck and other conservatives to thank for that cover, given that they have recently made comparisons between the ground zero mosque and Jones' plan to burn Korans, arguing that both Rauf and Jones have the right to build or burn, but that neither move is the right thing to do.
Jones himself had never made moving the Islamic center (it is projected to be a community center that will contain prayer spaces for all religions) a condition of halting his plans, and indeed had never indicated he was looking for any concessions. (Also, many dispute any parallels between an Islamic group building a community center three blocks from ground zero to promote interfaith healing and a Christian pastor burning Korans expressly to offend Muslims.)
Still, if Jones does not succeed in forcing Rauf to move the mosque further away from ground zero, the Bible and Jones' interpretation of God's will could provide a more high-minded excuse for his retreat.
For the past few days, in fact, it had appeared as though Jones was giving himself some wiggle room
by noting that "If God told us to do it" -- burn the Korans -- "then I guess he could tell us to do something different," as he said on NBC on Wednesday.
That same day, Wayne Sapp, an associate pastor at the Dove World Outreach Center, said the church is "still in prayer over the whole thing" and could cancel. Sapp cited the watershed moment in the Hebrew Bible when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. An angel stops Abraham at the last second, but this was considered a test of Abraham's faithfulness to God.
"God is leading us right up to the moment," Sapp said Wednesday
of the Koran-burning plan. "It's no different than Abraham and his son. God didn't tell him, 'Go right up to the point where you might sacrifice him.' He wanted him to be fully committed. We're prepared to do what we're called to do."
But God, through an angel, stayed Abraham's hand, and delivered a ram to be sacrificed instead (Genesis 21). And Isaac went on to become the father of the nation of Israel, as God promised Abraham.
It is notable, however, that in the Islamic tradition, it is Isaac's half-brother, Ishmael, who was nearly sacrificed and then spared by God. Jewish tradition, on the other hand, holds that Ishmael was banished along with his mother, Hagar, an Egyptian-born servant.
Some Christians believe -- along with the Apostle Paul -- that this rejected son represented Christianity's rejection of Judaism.
Other Christians contend that Ishmael went on to found the nation of people that are today's Muslims -- hence the lasting enmity between Muslims and Jews and Christians.
What Terry Jones thinks about all this is not hard to figure, given his sworn opposition to Islam as a "false religion." But trying to guess his next move is a risky game to play since it's not clear who the pastor is listening to these days, or what he is hearing.