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Florida pastor backs down

The Florida pastor who threatened to commemorate the anniversary of September 11 by burning Qurans promised yesterday to never stage such an event.

WASHINGTON // The Florida pastor who threatened to commemorate the anniversary of September 11 by burning Qurans promised yesterday to never stage such an event. Terry Jones was in New York yesterday where he was still waiting for an audience with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who planned the Park51 Islamic centre near the site of the former World Trade Center.

"We have decided to cancel the burning. We feel that whenever we started this out, one of our reasons was to show, to expose, that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical," Mr Jones said yesterday on NBC's Today show. "I believe that we have definitely accomplished that mission. Even though we have not burned one Quran, we have gotten more than 100 death threats." But the stated mission of the pastor's proposed stunt, which inspired protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and India, has always been nebulous at best.

The preacher had told Agence France-Presse in July that "we will burn Qurans because we think it's time for Christians, for churches, for politicians to stand up and say no; Islam and Sharia law is not welcome in the US." In the intervening months, the pressure on Mr Jones escalated. A parade of high-profile personalities - including Pope Benedict XVI, Barack Obama, and Angelina Jolie - urged Mr Jones to stop.

On Wednesday, Mr Jones implied in the newspaper USA Today that he might halt his plans if a member of President Obama's administration called him personally. On Thursday, Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, urged Mr Jones not to set fire to any Qurans for the sake of deployed US soldiers. The pastor then called off the event on Thursday after announcing that Mr Rauf had agreed to move the Park51 centre - a request that had apparently been among Mr Jones's unstated objectives.

Mr Rauf countered that not only had he made no such deal, but he had never spoken directly to the pastor, launching Mr Jones into a series of capitulations. "I am surprised by their announcement," the imam said in a statement released Thursday. "We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we here to barter." The pastor then announced Mr Rauf had "clearly, clearly lied" about his intention to move the Park51 project, and as late as yesterday, Mr Jones was still equivocating over whether to burn the Qurans.

Faced with a daunting level of international media scrutiny, Mr Jones made another climb-down. If Mr Rauf would meet with him the following day, Mr Jones said on Friday, the pastor would hold off on burning the Islamic holy books. Mr Rauf never replied to the ultimatum. Nevertheless, Mr Jones flew to New York on Friday night, where he told reporters he was hoping to meet with Mr Rauf yesterday. By early yesterday afternoon, even that goal appeared to elude the pastor. Mr Jones told the Today hosts that he had no meeting scheduled with the imam but that he hoped his magnanimous "gesture" might "open up a door to talk" with the Islamic cleric.

"Was it for publicity?" the NBC reporter Carl Quintanilla asked Mr Jones. "Absolutely not," he replied before worrying aloud about Islamist infiltration of the US government. "There is an element that is very, very radical. I am of the opinion that it is very much larger than our politicians and our news media would like for us to believe." mbradley@thenational.ae

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