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Obama pleas for calm as 9/11 Muslim row escalates

US president says religious freedom is 'inalienable right'

David Alexander and Ben Gruber in Washington

Published 11/09/2010 | 05:00

President Barack Obama last night appealed to Americans to respect the "inalienable" right of religious freedom and expressed hope a Florida Christian preacher would abandon a plan to burn the Koran.

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"This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters... you don't play games with that," an emotional President Obama said. He also made an earnest appeal for religious tolerance in the the US to preserve multi-faith harmony.

Calling himself a person who "relies heavily on my Christian faith," Mr Obama said he was nevertheless respectful of people of different faiths, be they Muslims or others.

"They are still good people and they are my neighbours and they are my friends and they are fighting alongside us in our battles," he said.

Pastor Terry Jones of the tiny, Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida has backed off a threat to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on today's ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

But while the bewhiskered fundamentalist preacher kept people guessing about his precise intentions, a fellow evangelist acting as a spokesman, K.A. Paul, said he could "guarantee" Pastor Jones would not go ahead with the event.

"There will be no Koran burning," said Mr Paul, who appeared with Mr Jones. Mr Paul presents himself as a "spiritual" trouble-shooter who once advised former Liberian President Charles Taylor, currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes.

Referring to "the individual down in Florida," Mr Obama noted the pastor's Koran-burning plan had already caused anti-American riots in Afghanistan, where US troops are in a gruelling war against Muslim Taliban militants.

"And so we've got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behaviour or threats of action put our young men and women in harm's way. And it's also the best imaginable recruiting tool for al Qai'da," he said.

"It is in the age of the internet something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we have to take it seriously," Mr Obama added.

Thousands of people took to the streets across Afghanistan yesterday, some threatening to attack US bases. One protester was shot dead and several were wounded outside a German-run NATO base in northeast Afghanistan. Demonstrations later spread to the capital, Kabul, and at least four other provinces.

Mr Obama was asked by a reporter about a direct telephone appeal made on Thursday by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Mr Jones asking him not to go ahead with the Koran burning. "My hope is that this individual prays on it and refrains from it," the president said.

Mr Jones has said he will not proceed with the planned event today if he can meet in New York with Muslim leaders seeking to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near the site of the World Trade Centre attacks.

He told reporters he was still hopeful such a meeting would take place, even though he had not heard from the New York imam involved in the cultural Centre project, Feisal Abdul Rauf. Opponents of the New York Centre building plan say it is insensitive to the families of the victims of the 2001 events.

Mr Jones, who claimed Jesus would approve of his "Burn a Koran Day" as a reprisal for Islamist terrorism, had said he will fly to New York, but his plans remained unclear last night.

Iman Rauf said yesterday he has no meeting planned with the Florida preacher.

"I am prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace. We have no such meeting planned at this time. Our plans for the community Centre have not changed," he said in a statement.

Sharif el-Gamal, project developer for the New York mosque, said in a statement it was untrue the Centre was to be moved.

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