Attorney General Eric Holder said in a private meeting with religious leaders Tuesday that a Florida pastor's plan to burn Korans was "idiotic and dangerous."
Following several high-profile potential hate crimes against Muslims, Holder met with several religious leaders to discuss the incidents, including the recent uproar over the planned New York Islamic Center near Ground Zero.
One of the leaders who attended the meeting, Muslim Advocates executive director Farhana Khera, said that during the meeting, Holder expressed his dismay of Gainesville, Fla., pastor Terry Jones' plan to burn Korans on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks
"To quote the attorney general, he called the Gainesville planned burning of Korans 'idiotic and dangerous' and underscored in many different ways that that activity is really a hate-incitement activity," Khera said. "While it may not be a violation of the law, it may be an act of free speech, it certainly violates our sense of decency."
Holder met with the interfaith leaders to discuss the Justice Department's commitment to preventing and prosecuting hate crimes, department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement released after the meeting.
He pointed out that in the last 18 months, the department has prosecuted three men who burned a mosque in Tennessee, two who burned an African-American church in Massachusetts, and another who spray-painted threats on a synagogue in Alabama, as well as other cases
The department's Civil Rights Division is also investigating the stabbing of a New York City cab driver, the recent arson of construction equipment at a planned mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and vandalism at an Islamic center in Madera, Calif., and at a mosque in Arlington, Texas, DOJ officials have said.
"As the Attorney General has noted on previous occasions, violence against individuals or institutions based on religious bias is intolerable and the department will bring anyone who commits such crimes to justice," Miller said. "Americans of every faith have the right to worship and practice their religion in peace, and the Department will continue to work with its state and local partners to ensure that this right is upheld."
Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, the president at Interfaith Alliance, said Holder told the group that the way American citizens handle this controversy could define the country.
"This may be the civil rights issue of this generation," Gaddy said. "We will tell the world far more about our identity as a nation by the actions we take in this moment, than by any statement any of us will make."
The meeting with Holder came just eight days after the religious leaders met with Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez.
The coalition of religious leaders have called on the Obama administration to take a more public stance against hate speech and hate crimes that have recently become commonplace, and urged Holder to speak out forcefully.
Although the Justice Department put out a paper statement following Tuesday's meeting, it was not attributed to Holder. Still, the alliance of religious leaders said they were hopeful that Holder would speak out publicly for the first time on this issue on Sept. 11.
"We think that this was an important first step to convene this meeting -- especially on such quick notice," Khera said. "I remain hopeful that the attorney general will make a public statement.
"I think [the Justice Department] is contemplating what the best form is and when to do it, but I think [Holder] understood the importance of sending the exact same message that he said so powerfully and eloquently privately and the need for all Americans to hear that message from our nation's chief law enforcement officer," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, a larger group of religious leaders including some who were at the Justice meeting, also met separately in Washington to condemn the anti-Muslim sentiment.
"Religious leaders can't stand by in silence when things like this are happening," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, at a news conference Tuesday convened by the Islamic Society of North America.
"This is not America. This is not our country," he said. "America was not built on hatred. It was built on love."
Regarding the planned Koran burning Saturday, the group said in a statement that it was "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."
"You attack one religion, you attack them all. I believe this is true," McCarrick told reporters at the press conference.
If Gen. David Petraeus is correct in warning that the proposed burning of the Koran would endanger U.S. troops abroad, "then we're really in trouble" because "our own people are going to get hurt and it won't be their fault," McCarrick warned.