WASHINGTON // Religious tensions are overshadowing the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States where President Barack Obama urged a Christian preacher to abandon a plan to burn copies of the Quran.
A day ahead of today's ninth anniversary, a report warned that the United States faced a growing threat from home-grown insurgents and an "Americanisation" of the al Qa'eda leadership. Yesterday, Mr Obama appealed to Americans to respect the "inalienable" right of religious freedom and said he hoped the preacher would abandon his plan to burn the Muslim holy book, saying it could deeply hurt the United States abroad.
News of the plan has outraged 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," Mr Obama told a Washington news conference in which he included an appeal for religious tolerance.
Pastor Terry Jones, of the obscure Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has backed off a threat to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in which nearly 3,000 people died. Mr Jones arrived late last night in New York, where he was scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today" show this morning. He had said he would call off the Quran burning if he could meet with Muslim leaders seeking to build an Islamic centre and mosque near the Manhattan site of the September 11 attacks with the aim of getting it relocated.
While the fundamentalist preacher kept people guessing about his precise intentions, an evangelist acting as a spokesman, K A Paul, said he could "guarantee"Mr Jones would not go ahead with the event. Referring to "the individual down in Florida," Mr Obama noted the pastor's Quran-burning plan had already caused anti-American riots in Afghanistan, where US troops are in a gruelling war against Muslim Taliban militants.
Thousands of people took to the streets across Afghanistan yesterday, some threatening to attack US 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. Opponents of the New York centre building plan say it is insensitive to the families of the victims of the 2001 events. The New York imam involved in the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, said yesterday he had no meeting planned with the Florida pastor. Sharif el-Gamal, project developer for the centre, denied it would be moved.
Mr Obama said at the news conference that he recognised "the extraordinary sensitivities" surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. But he said it should be possible to erect a mosque near the so-called Ground Zero site, or a building representing any other kind of religion. "This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights. One of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely," Mr Obama said.
"We are not at war against Islam, we are at war against terrorist organisations that have distorted Islam and have falsely used the banner of Islam," he added.
Former heads of the 9/11 Commission that studied the 2001 attacks presented a 43-page report they called a wake-up call about the radicalisation of Muslims in the United States and the changing strategy of al Qa'eda and its allies. "The threat that the US is facing is different than it was nine years ago," said the report, released by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.
"The US is arguably now little different from Europe in terms of having a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam." US officials have warned that cases such as the threat to burn the Quran could lead to a recruiting bonanza for al Qa'eda.