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Qur’an row smoulders on

by Ed Thornton

A CHURCH in the United States that was planning a “Burn the Koran” day to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has provoked strong condemnation from religious leaders and sparked furious protests in Muslim countries.

The pastor of Dove Outreach Centre in Florida, the Revd Dr Terry Jones, announced on Thursday that the event would not go ahead, but subsequently stated that it was “on hold”. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Afghanistan on Friday, burning US flags and chanting “Death to Christians”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, sending annual greetings to Muslims for the festival of Eid Al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, described “the threat to desecrate scriptures” as “deeply deplorable and to be strongly condemned by all people. . . These are challenges that we must respond to with a consistent message: that we oppose collectively all such provocations and insist that there is no place in our traditions for violent response.”

The former Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement released by his Faith Foundation that burning the Qur’an was “disrespectful, wrong, and will be widely condemned by people of all faiths and none.

“Those who wish to cause religious conflict are small in number but often manage to dominate the headlines. You do not have to be a Muslim to share a sense of deep concern at such a disrespectful way to treat the Holy Book of Islam,” Mr Blair said. “Rather than burn the Qur’an, I would encourage people to read it.”

At a press conference outside his church on Thursday, Dr Jones said he had been waiting for signs from God to cancel the “International Burn a Koran Day” event. The sign, he said, came when a local imam claimed he could arrange for the proposed opening of an Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York to be called off (News, 20 August). Dr Jones later claimed he had been lied to, as those behind plans denied they had spoken to the imam.

At a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, a group of leaders from churches and other religious groups spoke out against the planned burning, which was to have been staged by Dove World Outreach Center in Florida.

The group, which included leaders of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organisations, described the event as “a particularly egregious offence that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honour the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11”.

“As religious leaders, we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today.”

A statement posted on the Dove World Outreach Center’s website said that the church was burning copies of the Qur’an “to warn about the teaching and ideology of Islam, which . . . is hateful”, and claimed “the world is in bondage to the massive grip of the lies of Islam.”

The most senior military commander in Afghanistan, General David Patraeus, told the Associated Press that images of the burning of a Koran “would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence”. A White House spokesman also said the event could endanger the lives of US soldiers.

 A spokesman for the foreign ministry in Iran said that Western countries must “prevent the exploitation of freedom of expression to insult religious sanctities”, and warned that “otherwise the emotions of Muslim nations cannot be controlled”. On Monday, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Kabul, the Afghan capital, to demonstrate against the event, and on Sunday thousands assembled outside the US embassy in Jakarta to express their anger.

At the press conference in Washington, the president of the Islamic Society of America, Dr Ingrid Mattson, said that, for the last nine years, the organisation had been “trying to get the message out that we reject . . . extremist views.  . . The majority of Muslims we know as law-abiding, ethical, good people.”

The religious leaders also said there had been an “anti-Muslim frenzy” in the United States since plans became known to build an Islamic centre near the site of the 9/11 attacks (News, 20 August). 

The general secretary of the National Council of Churches, the Revd Michael Kinnamon, denounced what he described as “anti-Muslim bigotry” and said: “We are made richer and deeper in our Christian community by our relationship with Muslim and Jewish colleagues.”

The general secretary of American Baptists USA, the Revd A. Roy Medley, admitted: “Some of the most offensive statements about Islam, unfortunately, have been from the Baptist community.”

The executive director of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein, said: “We know what it was like when people have attacked us verbally and attacked us physically and others have remained silent. It cannot happen in America in 2010 without a response from the religious community.”

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THE General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has approved the joint Columba Declaration with the Church of England