Terry Jones, the man who sparked an international furor in Afghanistan by burning a Muslim holy book and showing it on the Internet, was back in the pulpit Sunday.
On a day when three more people died in violent demonstrations, Jones approached the front of the Dove World Outreach Center, laid down his handgun and his Bible on a music stand, and said he did not feel responsible for the violence in the Muslim world triggered by the book burning.
Then, inside the locked sanctuary, Jones delivered a sermon that invoked the founding fathers, the first Christians, and Martin Luther King Jr. They were risk takers, Jones told the congregants, and so is he .
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“When the civil rights movement first happened, many people died. Does that make [King] wrong?” Jones asked the parishioners. “NO!” came the answer from his flock, about 20 people, excluding reporters.
The three deaths on Sunday brought to 24 the toll from the violence unleashed when Muslims learned of the Quran burning 8,000 miles away in Gainesville.
Among the dead were several staff members at a United Nations post in Kandahar that was overrun by angry protesters who disarmed guards. Two were reportedly beheaded.
Jones first drew attention to himself last year when he threatened to burn a Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. Those threats landed the obscure preacher and his fringe flock in the international spotlight. Politicians, clergy members, even high-level members of the U.S. military pleaded with him to stop with the threats. In the end, he announced the Quran burning was off, to the relief of this college town, which prides itself on its tolerance and diversity.
Two weeks ago, with no advance notice, the burning was on again. The Quran was torched after a mock trial in which the book was found guilty of various transgressions.
Once more, Jones finds himself in the spotlight, talked about on CNN and Fox News, buzzed about on blogs and national news websites. He spent Saturday conducting various news interviews.
“Why do I do what I do?’’ he told the flock Sunday. “Because I’m more afraid of God than I am of you.”
It took one phone call to ruin Garrett Garner’s Friday.
Garner, a policy assistant for Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe, sat on his couch at home, his television flashing black-and-white images of a World War II documentary. Then, the phone rang. It was the mayor saying things had gotten bloody in Afghanistan.
Immediately, Garner flipped open his laptop and went to GoogleNews to find out what all the commotion was about.
Then, he saw it: “Afghanistan. . . Koran burning . . . Gainesville church. . . people dead.”
No more day off. . .
Within minutes, Garner was at city hall, working with the mayor and communications manager Bob Woods on a response.
For Lowe, Jones and his followers are more than a nuisance; they are an embarrassment to his city.
Later that afternoon, Lowe addressed the news media.“The world we live in is a volatile place,” he said. “While there is absolutely no justification for these horrific deaths and injuries, Terry Jones and his followers were quite aware that his actions could trigger these types of events.”
Police stepped up their presence around the church. Would the mayor reach out to the pastor?
“If I felt it would lead somewhere, then I would,’’ Lowe said.
For the mayor, Terry Jones is a lost cause.
Ismail ibn Ali knew the questions would be coming once he turned on his television. Ibn Ali, the president of Islam on Campus at UF, knew that the violence in Afghanistan would lead to criticism of his religion.
But it still hurt.
“To have this behavior in Afghanistan is really sad because this is the reaction Terry Jones wanted,” ibn Ali said. “It’s just a really sad situation.”
Despite the publicity the city has drawn from the events in Afghanistan, Ali said that Gainesville is still a good town in which to be a Muslim, even if one church wants to tell the world otherwise. “I could take any creed, twist it and give you a reason to do something bad,” he said. “This act of violence [in Afghanistan] is not something any Muslim would say is justified.”
While ibn Ali wouldn’t say that what happened in Afghanistan was entirely Jones’ fault, he said that the pastor carries some responsibility. Then again, these are people, he said, who have nothing to lose.
But for now, he prays.
Wayne Sapp, Terry Jones’ second in command, knew what was coming when he put the flame to the book.But as he unfastened his tie after Sunday’s service, one thing became clear: If he could, he’d do it again.
He said he feels sympathy for the victims and their families. He asserted that he himself would never harm a Muslim, let alone kill one.
But God’s work, he said, needed to be done.
“It’s like a snake being in a bed with a bunch of babies,” Sapp said. “Do you just let it continue to creep and let it breed or do you reach in and get it?
Reaching in, however, comes at a price.
“We’re human beings. Of course we have moments of fear,” said Luke
Jones, the senior pastor’s son and also a pastor at the church. “When the world comes raining down on you, you feel the emotion.”
That doesn’t mean the church has any plans to stop preaching its controversial message anytime soon. “We’re not in this for the fireworks; we’re not in this for the show,” the younger Jones said. “We’re not going away.”