Gates Urges Florida Church to Nix Quran Burning
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2010 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today personally called a Florida pastor to try to stop him from burning the Quran on the 9th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Gates and other senior administration officials feared the pastor's pledge to burn the Muslim holy book would put U.S. forces at risk.
"Secretary Gates reached out to Pastor [Terry] Jones this afternoon. They had a very brief phone conversation during which the secretary expressed his grave concern that going forward with the Quran burning would put at risk the lives of our forces around the world, especially those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he urged the pastor not to proceed with it," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell in an e-mail to Pentagon correspondents.
According to media reports, the pastor has cancelled his plans to burn copies of the Quran.
Earilier today, Morrell said Gates and his top advisors were discussing whether he should intervene personally in a Florida pastor’s plans to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
“This is obviously of serious concern to us,” Morrell told reporters in a Pentagon press briefing. “We believe it could seriously endanger our forces. So this is something we are actively discussing within the administration in terms of taking this unusual measure of calling this pastor and trying to convince him that it is not the right thing to proceed with.”
Earlier this week President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly urged Jones, pastor of a small evangelical church in Gainesville, Fla., to rethink his plans. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, former top commander of troops in Iraq, also weighed in, calling for the church to consider the potential risk to troops serving abroad.
A public burning of the Quran would jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops serving around the world, Morrell said, saying that such an act leaves the Defense Department “particularly exposed here, in light of how closely we operate with people of the Muslim faith.”
“This has the potential to further endanger our forces already in harm’s way in Afghanistan, in Iraq, … frankly, anywhere around the world where we operate in predominantly Muslim countries,” Morrell said.
The effect of the church’s actions could cause death and destruction around the world, Morrell said. He noted that an “erroneous” news story in 2005 that alleged defamation to the Quran led to violent protests that left 15 people dead.
Some protests have already begun in Afghanistan at the mere threat of burning the Quran, Morrell noted. Pentagon officials don’t want a repeat of the 2005 incident, which he called “very bloody and violent protests around the world.”
“This is far more than setting a blaze in a disrespectful way to holy books at a small church in Florida,” he said. “The potential ripple effect here is very real. We want to avoid a repeat of .”
Officials also worry that other anti-Islamic groups will follow in the Florida church’s footsteps, Morrell said. The news media, he suggested, have a role in this concern.
“This is the pastor of an obscure small church in Florida who has been given an incredible international platform due, frankly, not to General Petraeus’ comments or any other member of the government’s comments, but because of extraordinary media coverage,” he said.
Gates has yet to comment publicly on the subject, but Morrell said the secretary has “no reluctance” to voice his concern. The secretary, he added, does not take the issue lightly.
“We have real vital interests at stake here. Rest assured: he is as concerned about this as everyone you have seen on television speaking on this, because he feels a personal responsibility for all of the troops under his command,” Morrell said.