Obama Fears Koran Burning Copy Cats Could Hurt U.S. Troops

New York imam now says he has no plans to meet with Terry Jones.

September 9, 2010, 1:06 PM

Sept. 10, 2010 — -- Although Pastor Terry Jones has dropped his threat to burn Korans on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Obama said today he is fearful of copycats looking to get their turn in the spotlight.

"Although this might be one individual in Florida, part of my concern is that we don't start having a whole bunch of people across America thinking this is a way to get attention," Obama said at a press conference today. "This is a way to endanger our troops...you don't play games with that."

Jones reaffirmed today that he no longer plans to go through with his Koran-burning ceremony. But several other religious leaders across the nation say they'll go ahead with their own.

In Springfield, Tenn., Rev. Bob Old has vowed to burn three copies of the Koran in his backyard and plans to videotape it, later uploading it onto the popular video streaming website YouTube.

In Cheyenne, Wyo., Duncan Philp, the founder of the Wyoming Tyranny Response Team, plans to burn a copy of the Koran on the steps of the State Capitol on Saturday, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., which became infamous for heckling funerals of U.S. soldiers, also has said it will hold a Koran burning.

Instead of burning Korans Saturday, Jones intends to travel to New York City to meet with the man behind the so-called Ground Zero Mosque hoping to convince him to move it away from the vicinity of the 9/11 terror attacks.

But even that has become entangled in confusion that has marked the past 48 hours of talks surrounding the issue. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has indicated that he has no intention of moving the Islamic community center said today that he has no plans to meet with Jones.

That prompted Jones and his newest allly, evangelist Dr. K.A. Paul, to hold a news conference in Gainesville, Fla., and issue a "challenge" to Rauf to call them and state whether he is willing to move his project.

After announcing their phones numbers at the news conference, Paul declared, "The challenge is crystal clear. It's 1:20 now. He has until 3:20, two hours, so there is no cat and mouse game here."

Two hours later, the chaos continued, as Jones told the press that he had not received a phone call but still remained hopeful that "the meeting would take place" in New York.

The pastor's son, Luke Jones, stepped in to tell the media that they would not be kept informed of what going to happen, that Paul was speaking only for himself, and suggested bluntly that maybe the press should leave.

That confusion has been the hallmark of the last few days of efforts to halt the Koran burning, which Obama had said earlier in the week would endanger American troops abroad and would be a recruitiing tool for al Qaeda.

President Obama Fears That Burning Korans Could Hurt U.S. Troops

Obama said that he hopes U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' phone call to Jones on Thursday sent a clear message.

"We have an obligation to send a very clear message that his kind of behavior or threats of action put our men and women in harms away and it's also the best imaginable recruiting tool for al Qaeda," said Obama.

Jones decision to cancel his Koran-burning hinged on a deal he claimed he struck with Florida Imam Muhammed Musri who, Jones insists, promised that the Islamic community center and mosque planned near Ground Zero would be moved.

"We believe that the imam will keep his word," Jones told "Good Morning America" today. "We believe that proposal is still good."

But that proposal -- canceling the bonfire of Korans in exchange for moving the proposed Islamic center away from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- exists only in Jones' mind, said Musri, who is president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.

"That offer wasn't on the table," Musri told "Good Morning America" today. "He stretched and exaggerated my statements."

"I told him, 'I did not even speak with the imam in New York, so how can I guarantee you?'" Musri said.

Musri said he was in the room with Jones when Gates called to impress upon Jones how dangerous the Koran-burning could be to U.S. troops serving in Muslim countries. He believed it was Gates' call that changed Jones' mind.

Jones said his conversation with Gates was "very short" but that the defense secretary was "very gracious" when he asked the pastor to cancel the burning.

Jones said he took Gates' concerns that U.S. service members would be put at risk "very, very seriously" and that "we absolutely would not want that to happen."

"I tried to close the deal," Musri said, recalling how he told Jones that if he did not cancel there could be riots today, as Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan.

"I told him I'm willing to make contact as an imam with the imam in New York, Muslim to Muslim," Musri said. "And ask to schedule a meeting."

But Jones, who repeatedly mispronounced the Muslim honorific as "iman," said today that he confirmed the exchange several times with Musri Thursday and that the two men were clear on the proposal that he thought would "make everyone happy."

"There is absolutely no possibility that I misunderstood him," Jones said. "If he is saying that, then he is lying."

"I had witnesses in my office," he said. "We repeated it several times."

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, weighed in on the controversy, telling ABC News that "there has been some damage done" by the mere threat of Jones' leading his worshippers in burning Korans.

"There are already in a sense images, if you will, implanted in minds," he said, "albeit not with photos of something as inflammatory as the burning of a Koran."

Even Donald Trump joined the conversation Thursday when he offered to buy out one of the investors of the New York site for 25 percent more than they had paid.

Imam, Developer Denies That Ground Zero Mosque Will Move

Rauf told ABC News' Christiane Amanpour that the move of the center in New York would have serious consequences in the Muslim world.

"Let's say we moved under this current circumstance with this dialogue," said Rauf. "What will be the headline tomorrow in the Muslim world?"

"'Islam under attack in America.' That's the theme of it. 'Mosque forcibly removed by whatever.' That will feed the radicals. So diffusing terrorism is a necessity for our national security," he said.

The developer of the project Rauf calls a "multifaith community center" also issued a denial that it would be moved.

"The Muslim Community Center called Park51 in Lower Manhattan is not being moved," read a statement from SoHo Properties. "The project will proceed as planned."

Jones told "Nightline" Thursday that despite cancelling the burn, events have upheld his dim view of Islam.

"Our opinion of Islam has only been confirmed through the very fact we've done nothing, we have not burned the Koran, [and] even though we haven't done anything there have been riots and threats around the world to us," he said. "That already confirms our mission has been accomplished to bring a greater awareness to America and the world that Islam is more dangerous and much more violent than we thought."

Several FBI agents visited Jones at his church, the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., on Thursday.

FBI sources told ABC News that the agents were there to brief Jones on all the death threats he's received and to discuss how they would protect him and the church on Saturday.

The event sparked a worldwide debate over what kind of backlash the event may cause.

The international police agency Interpol released a warning to governments worldwide of an increased risk of terror attacks if Jones went ahead with his plan.

The U.S. State Department also issued a warning to Americans living and traveling abroad about the potential for violent protests before and after the scheduled burning.

Leaders of Pakistan, Indonesia and India had called on the United States to take action to prevent Jones from desecrating the Islamic holy book, and Afghan insurgents were distributing flyers about the Koran burn to turn villagers against Americans.

ABC News' Pierre Thomas, Kirit Radia, Michael S. James and Sarah Netter contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events