GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The leader of a tiny church on Thursday backed off his threat to burn the Quran, saying he gave up the plan in exchange for a deal to move a planned Islamic center and mosque away from New York's ground zero. The imam planning the center, however, quickly denied any such deal.
The Rev. Terry Jones had been under intense pressure to back off, including a statement from President Barack Obama and a personal call from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Jones made his announcement outside his church alongside Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
After the news conference, Musri told The Associated Press there was an agreement for him and Jones to travel to New York and meet Saturday — on the actual anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — with the imam overseeing plans to build a mosque near ground zero.
"I told the pastor that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved," Musri said. "But there is not any offer from there (New York) that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution."
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said he was surprised by the announcement and that he would not barter.
Speaking to reporters later, Jones was adamant that he was promised that the Islamic center would be moved, and said he would be "very, very disappointed" if it were not.
Jones, the pastor of a Florida Pentecostal church of 50 members, has said that he believes the Quran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
Jones on Thursday said he prayed about the decision and that if the site of the mosque was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Quran burning.
"We are, of course, now against any other group burning Qurans," Jones said during the news conference. We would right now ask no one to burn Qurans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it."
His decision comes after a firestorm of criticism from leaders around the world. President Barack Obama, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan and several Christian leaders had urged Jones to reconsider his plans. They said his actions would endanger U.S. soldiers and provide a strong recruitment tool for Islamic extremists. Jones' protest also drew criticism from religious and political leaders from across the Muslim world.
They warned that the plan would put Americans in danger around the world. In Afghanistan, hundreds of angry Afghans burned an American flag and chanted "Death to the Christians" to protest the planned Quran burning.
Musri thanked Jones and his church members "for making the decision today to defuse the situation and bring to a positive end what has become the world over a spectacle that no one would benefit from except extremists and terrorists" who would use it to recruit future radicals.
Russ Blackburn, Gainesville city manager: "It's very good news for Gainesville and good news for everyone involved."
Jones' neighbors in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus, also have said they disapprove. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city have mobilized to plan inclusive events — some will read from the Quran at their own weekend services.
Jones' Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare against satanic forces.