President Barack Obama on Friday appealed to Americans to respect the “inalienable” right of religious freedom and expressed hope a Florida Christian preacher would abandon a plan to burn the Koran that could deeply hurt the United States abroad.
News of the plan has already outraged many Muslims around the world and triggered violent protests in Afghanistan in which one protester was shot dead.
“This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters … you don’t play games with that,” Obama told a Washington news conference in which he included an earnest appeal for religious tolerance in the United States to preserve multi-faith harmony.
Calling himself a person who “relies heavily on my Christian faith,” Obama said he was nevertheless respectful of people of different faiths, be they Muslims or others.
“They are still good people and they are my neighbors and they are my friends and they are fighting alongside us in our battles,” he said.
Pastor Terry Jones of the tiny, little-known Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida has backed off a threat to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on Saturday.
But while the bewhiskered fundamentalist preacher kept people guessing about his precise intentions, a fellow evangelist acting as a spokesman, K.A. Paul, said he could “guarantee” Jones would not go ahead with the event.
“There will be no Koran burning tomorrow,” said Paul, who appeared with Jones. Paul presents himself as a “spiritual” trouble-shooter who once advised former Liberian President Charles Taylor, currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes.
Referring to “the individual down in Florida,” Obama noted the pastor’s Koran-burning plan had already caused anti-American riots in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are in a grueling war against Muslim Taliban militants.
“And so we’ve got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behavior or threats of action put our young men and women in harm’s way. And it’s also the best imaginable recruiting tool for al Qaeda,” he said.
“It is in the age of the Internet something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we have to take it seriously,” Obama added.
Thousands of people took to the streets across Afghanistan on Friday, some threatening to attack U.S. bases. One protester was shot dead and several were wounded outside a German-run NATO base in northeast Afghanistan. Demonstrations later spread to the capital, Kabul, and at least four other provinces.