Obama in plea for tolerance


US president Barack Obama has issued a plea for religous tolerance amid the continuing controversy surrounding plans by a small church in Florida to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Speaking at a rare press conference in the White House today, Mr Obama said it is "absolutely important" that the American people "hang on to that thing that is best in us - a belief in tolerance".

Mr Obama made his comments as it emerged that the imam behind a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near the World Trade Center site in New York said he has no meeting planned with the Florida pastor who had threatened to burn copies of the Koran.

The threat to burn the holy book had been withdrawn after Terry Jones, who heads the tiny Dove World Outreach Center church based in Gainesville, Florida, told reporters the imam had agreed to shift the planned site of the Muslim centre and mosque there away from near the Ground Zero location of the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

However, in a statement issued this afternoon, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said no meeting had been arranged, contrary to Mr Jones' view.

Imam Rauf said he was prepared to consider meeting "anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace".

"We have no such meeting planned at this time. Our plans for the community center have not changed. With the solemn day of September 11 upon us, I encourage everyone to take time for prayer and reflection," he said.

Pastor Terry Jones appeared to leave open the possibility he could change his mind if the proposed meeting fails to take place tomorrow in New York.

However, the pastor issued an ultimatum to the New York imam to contact him about whether the Islamic center will be built near the World Trade Center site.

Speaking to reporters outside his Gainesville church today, Mr Jones said imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had until this afternoon to contact him about moving the site of the center.

Speaking this afternoon, Mr Obama said he hoped the pastor refrained from burning Korans tomorrow because it could cause "profound damage" to US interests abroad.

"The idea that we would burn the sacred text of someone else's religion is contrary to what this country stands for," Mr Obama told a news conference in the White House.

"This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters." he said. "It is in the age of the internet something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we've got to take it seriously."

The president defended the rights of Muslims to build the Islamic centre and mosque. "If you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on a site," Mr Obama said.

"We are not at war against Islam, we are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam
and have falsely used the banner of Islam," he said.

"You know, we have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other. And I will do everything that I
can as long as I'm president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation,
under God. And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation."

Mr Obama said there are Muslims in the US military fighting extremists in Afghanistan fighting and they are owed the same rights as other Americans. "They're out there putting their lives on the line for us," Mr Obama said. "They are Americans."

He said tomorrow's anniversary of the September 11th attacks was a time for Americans to be unified.

Earlier, the pastor, speaking on ABC's Good Morning America, said: "Right now we have plans not to do it [burn the Koran]. Mr Jones has said a Florida imam had promised him a meeting with New York imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in exchange for cancelling the Koran-burning. Abdul Rauf is at the centre of the controversy over the New York mosque.

"If we meet with him on Saturday then of course we will not burn the Koran," Jones said in another appearance on NBC's Today show.

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, told ABC he had not promised that the proposed Islamic centre in New York would be moved. Mr Musri said he had only agreed to make contact with the New York organisers, set up a meeting and make the case for shifting the site.

"The meeting will happen," Mr Musri told ABC. But he added that Mr Jones "stretched and exaggerated my statements . . . I told him I'm willing to make contact as an imam to the imam in New York, Muslim to Muslim, and ask on his behalf to schedule a meeting."

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

Mr Jones's adult son Luke, who wore a handgun on his hip because of death threats against church members, told reporters his father would fly to New York later today. Asked whether the Koran-burning was going ahead, he replied: "As of right now, no."

The proposed location of the New York centre has drawn opposition from many Americans who say it is insensitive to families of victims of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000, while the threatened Koran-burning by the tiny Dove World Outreach Center has touched off anger in the Muslim world.

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

Officials said the German-run base was singled out after German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to freedom of speech earlier this week at a ceremony for a Dane whose cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad sparked deadly protests five years ago.

Mr Jones's plan to burn the Koran drew criticism yesterday from Mr Obama, who warned it could provoke al-Qaeda suicide bombings and other Islamist violence.

US defence secretary Robert Gates called Mr Jones yesterday to urge him not to go ahead, a Pentagon official said. The spokesman said Mr Gates had expressed "grave concern" in the brief telephone call with Jones that the Koran burning "would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan".

A crowd, estimated at 10,000 by a government official, poured out of mosques into the streets of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan in Afghanistan's northeast, after special prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Several hundred gathered in a Kabul northern district, and about 2,000 marched on a government building in western Farah, witnesses said. There were protests in nearby Badghis in the northwest and Ghor and Herat in the west.

Similar protests over perceived desecration of Muslim symbols have led to dozens of deaths in Afghanistan in recent years, including after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad in 2005.