GAINESVILLE — One question has the world hanging on the words of a pastor on a patch of grass in Gainesville: Will Terry Jones burn the Koran?
By Friday's end, after a series of confusing declarations and an ultimatum that came and went without actions, the pastor allowed for enough ambiguity to keep the international media asking and worldwide protests roaring.
Burn a Koran Day, scheduled for today, is canceled. But if Jones doesn't get what he wants — a New York meeting with the imam behind the mosque proposed near ground zero — will he reschedule the burning?
He won't say he will. He won't say he won't.
And the cameras keep rolling.
• • •
The field outside the Dove World Outreach Center filled on Friday as it had for the past few days, satellites dishes poised, news trucks humming, all eyes on the locked doors of the tiny church, awaiting the pastor's next move.
Jones had given a morning interview to NBC's Today, saying he wouldn't burn the Koran if he met with the imam in New York.
Did that negate what he said the previous night — that the burning was off? Was he going to New York? When?
The church announced that the pastor would give a statement. The doors to the church opened after 1 p.m.
"He's coming," someone said.
Jones emerged in a suit and tie, accompanied by Indian-born Christian preacher K.A. Paul, who touts himself as the "world's most popular evangelist."
Jones let Paul do the talking.
"The challenge is crystal clear," Paul said. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had two hours to return the pastor's calls. The evangelist told the media to call the imam to ask if the proposed mosque was going to be moved.
What would happen if the imam didn't call? Paul would not say.
The pastor and the evangelist retreated; the waiting continued.
• • •
The sun beat down at 94 degrees as church members holed up inside. About 100 reporters, some speaking Japanese and German and Spanish, staked out shaded spots.
They were growing tired of the pastor's tactics.
He had been controlling his message through makeshift news conferences, reading from statements and walking away when he didn't want to talk anymore. But on Friday, he wouldn't be able to control those around him. The pastor emerged with the evangelist to announce that the imam had not called, but that he was still planning to go to New York and that the meeting would go on.
"I am prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace," Imam Rauf said in a statement. "We have no such meeting planned at this time. Our plans for the community center have not changed. With the solemn day of Sept. 11 upon us, I encourage everyone to take time for prayer and reflection."
The pastor left behind a throng of cameras as he disappeared into the church, but Paul, the evangelist, stayed behind. He was answering questions.
Would the pastor agree not to burn the Koran ever?
"I cannot get into what he will do for the rest of his life," Paul said.
What were the consequences of the imam not meeting this challenge?
Paul denied he ever called it a challenge. He denied he ever spoke for the pastor.
Moments later, the pastor's son Luke Jones emerged from the church with another church member. They tapped his shoulder. "Sir," they told him, "you need to go." The evangelist got in a car and left.
Reporters asked the pastor's son if the pastor was aware people had been injured and killed in protests across the world. They asked if the pastor was being purposely vague to drag out the media attention.
"We're not press hungry," Luke Jones said. "If we wanted media attention, we would tell you everything we will do. You can leave if you want to."
"We should leave!" one reporter said. "Yeah!" others echoed.
But they all stayed.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.