WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. religious leaders on Tuesday condemned an “anti-Muslim frenzy” in the United States, including plans by a Florida church to burn a Koran on September 11, an act a top general said could endanger American troops abroad.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders denounced the “misinformation and outright bigotry” against U.S. Muslims resulting from plans to build a Muslim community centre and mosque not far from the site of the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks in New York by the Islamist militant group al Qaeda that killed 2,752 people.
Tensions have risen with the approach of both the September 11 anniversary on Saturday and the Muslim eid al-Fitr festival that marks the close of the fasting month of Ramadan, which is expected to end around Friday.
Passions have been further inflamed by Terry Jones, the pastor of a 30-person church in Gainesville, Florida, who has announced plans to burn a Koran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Jones says he wants to “expose Islam” as a “violent and oppressive religion.”
Religious leaders, including Washington Roman Catholic Archbishop emeritus Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Dr. Michael Kinnamon of the National Council of Churches, released a statement saying they were “alarmed by the anti-Muslim frenzy” and “appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text.”
“To attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans,” said the religious leaders, including Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Association of Conservative Rabbis.
“The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Qu’ran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honour the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11,” they said.
The planned Koran-burning by the Dove World Outreach Centre has already prompted protests in Kabul. Several hundred Afghans — mostly students from religious schools — gathered outside the Milad ul-Nabi mosque and chanted “Death to America” in anger over the plans.
General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement the Koran burning could “endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort” to stabilise the Afghan situation.
“It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems, not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community,” Petraeus said.
President Barack Obama’s administration made clear that it deplored the planned event, which State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described as “un-American.”
“I am heartened by the clear and unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told American Muslims at the State Department as she hosted hosted an Iftar, the meal at which Muslims break their daily fast during the month of Ramadan.
Attorney General Eric Holder, the top U.S. law enforcement official, called the planned Florida event “idiotic” during a closed-door meeting with a small group of religious leaders, said Saperstein and a Justice Department official.
Holder also told the group no one should have to live and pray in fear and that he planned soon to address the issue publicly, the meeting participants said. He also reiterated a commitment to aggressively prosecute hate crimes, they said.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the Islamic Society of North America president who helped organise Tuesday’s statement by religious leaders, said ordinary U.S. Muslims were feeling increasingly worried and harassed as they went about their daily lives.
“I have heard many Muslim-Americans say that they have never felt this anxious or this insecure in America since directly after September 11,” she said.
She urged Muslims abroad to “take a step back” and not use the “loud voices of some Christian extremists” in the United States as a justification for action against American Jews and Christians.
“They do not represent America, they do not represent Christianity or Judaism,” Mattson said. “These people who are here with us today represent the true values and views of the vast majority of American Jews and Christians and just American citizens.”
The religious leaders did not take a stand regarding the planned cultural centre and mosque near the Ground Zero site in downtown Manhattan. The Muslim cleric leading the project reasserted in a New York Times opinion piece on Tuesday that organizers would proceed with the centre.
Rallies for and against the centre and mosque are set for Saturday in New York after a memorial ceremony for those killed. Families of the victims were debating whether to call a truce on the anniversary, with some saying the day should be reserved for “appropriate remembrance and reflection.”
Critics say the planned location two blocks from Ground Zero is insensitive, while supporters say politicians have wrongly commandeered the emotionally charged debate before U.S. congressional elections on November 2.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York, Pascal Fletcher in Miami and Andrew Quinn, Ross Colvin, Jeremy Pelofsky, Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney