GAINESVILLE — An anti-Islamic preacher backed off and then threatened to reconsider burning the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, angrily accusing a Muslim leader of lying to him Thursday with a promise to move an Islamic center and mosque away from New York's ground zero. The imam planning the center denied there was ever such a deal.
The Rev. Terry Jones generated an international firestorm with his plan to burn the Koran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he has been under intense pressure to give it up. President Barack Obama urged him to listen to "those better angels" and give up his "stunt," saying it would endanger U.S. troops and give Islamic terrorists a recruiting tool. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of calling Jones personally.
Standing outside his 50-member Pentecostal church, the Dove Outreach Center, alongside Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Jones said he relented when Musri assured him that the New York mosque will be moved.
Musri, however, said after the news conference that the agreement was only for him and Jones to travel to New York and meet Saturday with the imam overseeing plans to build a mosque near ground zero.
Hours later, Jones said Musri "clearly, clearly lied to us."
"Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision," Jones said. "So as of right now, we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it."
Jones did not say whether the Koran burning could still be held Saturday, but he said he expected Musri to keep his word and expected "the imam in New York to back up one of his own men."
Jones had never invoked the mosque controversy as a reason for his planned protest. He cited his belief that the Koran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
But he said Thursday afternoon that he prayed about the decision and concluded that if the mosque was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Koran burning.
"We are, of course, now against any other group burning Korans," Jones said. "We would right now ask no one to burn Korans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it."
Musri thanked Jones and his church members "for making the decision today to defuse the situation and bring to a positive end what has become the world over a spectacle that no one would benefit from except extremists and terrorists" who would use it to recruit future radicals.
After Jones accused him of lying, Musri said the pastor "stretched my words" at the news conference.
"I think there was no confusion to begin with. When we stepped out of the church, we had an agreement to meet in New York," Musri said. He added that Jones "said his main reason for stopping the event was that it would endanger the troops overseas, Americans traveling abroad and others around the world."
Musri said he told the pastor "that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved," Musri said. "But there is not any offer from there (New York) that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution."
Musri said Thursday night that he still plans to go ahead with the meeting Saturday.
In New York, the leader of the Islamic center project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, issued a statement saying he was glad Jones had decided not to burn the Koran but that he had spoken to neither the pastor nor Musri.
"We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter," Rauf said. "We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony."
Jones' decision to call off the Koran burning was made after a firestorm of criticism from leaders around the world. The pope and several other Christian leaders were among those urging him to reconsider his plans, which generated a wave of anger among Muslims. In Afghanistan, hundreds of Afghans burned an American flag and chanted "Death to the Christians" to protest the planned Koran burning.
Obama told ABC's Good Morning America in an interview aired Thursday that Jones' plan "is completely contrary to our values as Americans."
"And as a very practical matter, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform," Obama said.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell confirmed that Gates called Jones about 4 p.m. Thursday — shortly before the pastor's announcement. During the "very brief" call, Gates expressed "his grave concern that going forward with this Koran burning would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan," Morrell said.
Morrell said earlier that the decision to issue a personal appeal was not easy because it could provoke other extremists "who, all they want, is a call from so-and-so." After Gates' call to Jones, Morrell said the secretary's "fundamental baseline attitude about this is that if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform it was a call worth placing."
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., thanked Obama, Gates and other administration officials for their efforts. "This is definitely a positive moment in showing America's tolerance and pluralism and should not go unappreciated in the Muslim world," Haqqani said.
The cancellation also was welcomed by Jones' neighbors in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city had mobilized to plan inclusive events, including Koran readings at services, as a counterpoint to Jones' protest.
Jones' Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare against satanic forces.
The pastor was not the only person to inject confusion into the debate over the New York mosque, which is planned to go up two blocks north of the trade center site. Donald Trump, who made a fortune in real estate, offered Thursday to buy out a major investor in the real estate partnership that controls the site where the 13-story Islamic center would be built.
In a letter released Thursday by Trump's publicist, Trump told Hisham Elzanaty that he would buy his stake in one of the two lower Manhattan buildings involved in the project for 25 percent more than whatever he paid — if the mosque is moved at least five blocks farther away from the trade center site.
Elzanaty's response: No sale.
"This is just a cheap attempt to get publicity and get in the limelight," said his lawyer, Wolodymyr Starosolsky.
He added that the offer's lack of seriousness is evident in the price.
The group collectively paid $4.8 million for the building Trump offered to buy. The other is being leased.
Starosolsky said the real estate partnership had already received two offers in the ballpark of $20 million.
"He knows what the value of the building is. If he were really interested in buying the building, he would have come forward with at least $20 million," Starosolsky said.
Jones, in his remarks Thursday afternoon said that despite worldwide publicity and derision, he was happy with how things had turned out.
"We have at this time no regrets," the pastor said. "We feel we have accomplished our goal. We are very very happy with the outcome."