Pentagon Urges Florida Church to Nix Quran Burning

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2010 — Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates and his top advi­sors are dis­cussing whether Gates should inter­vene per­son­al­ly in a Flori­da pastor’s plans to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniver­sary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pen­ta­gon Press Sec­re­tary Geoff Mor­rell said today.

“This is obvi­ous­ly of seri­ous con­cern to us,” Mor­rell told reporters in a Pen­ta­gon news con­fer­ence. “We believe it could seri­ous­ly endan­ger our forces. So this is some­thing we are active­ly dis­cussing with­in the admin­is­tra­tion in terms of tak­ing this unusu­al mea­sure of call­ing this pas­tor and try­ing to con­vince him that it is not the right thing to pro­ceed with.”

Sev­er­al admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, includ­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton, this week urged Ter­ry Jones, pas­tor of a small evan­gel­i­cal church in Gainesville, Fla., to rethink his plans. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, com­man­der of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Army Gen. Ray­mond T. Odier­no, for­mer top com­man­der of troops in Iraq, also weighed in, call­ing for the church to con­sid­er the poten­tial risk to troops serv­ing abroad.

A pub­lic burn­ing of the Quran would jeop­ar­dize the safe­ty of U.S. troops serv­ing around the world, Mor­rell said, say­ing that such an act leaves the Defense Depart­ment “par­tic­u­lar­ly exposed here, in light of how close­ly we oper­ate with peo­ple of the Mus­lim faith.”

“I think the mes­sage is out there loud and clear,” Mor­rell con­tin­ued. “This has the poten­tial to fur­ther endan­ger our forces already in harm’s way in Afghanistan, in Iraq, … frankly, any­where around the world where we oper­ate in pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim coun­tries.”

Pen­ta­gon offi­cials want to ensure the burn­ing does not take place. The effect of the church’s actions could cause death and destruc­tion around the world, Mor­rell said. He not­ed that an “erro­neous” news sto­ry in 2005 that alleged defama­tion to the Quran led to vio­lent protests that left 15 peo­ple dead.

Some protests have already begun in Afghanistan at the mere threat of burn­ing the Quran, Mor­rell not­ed. Pen­ta­gon offi­cials don’t want a repeat of the 2005 inci­dent, which he called “very bloody and vio­lent protests around the world.”

“This is far more than set­ting a blaze in a dis­re­spect­ful way to holy books at a small church in Flori­da,” he said. “The poten­tial rip­ple effect here is very real. We want to avoid a repeat of [2005].”

Offi­cials also wor­ry that oth­er anti-Islam­ic groups will fol­low in the Flori­da church’s foot­steps, Mor­rell said. The news media, he sug­gest­ed, have a role in this con­cern.

“This is the pas­tor of an obscure small church in Flori­da who has been giv­en an incred­i­ble inter­na­tion­al plat­form due, frankly, not to Gen­er­al Petraeus’ com­ments or any oth­er mem­ber of the government’s com­ments, but because of extra­or­di­nary media cov­er­age,” he said.

Gates has yet to com­ment pub­licly on the sub­ject, but Mor­rell said the sec­re­tary has “no reluc­tance” to voice his con­cern. The sec­re­tary, he added, does not take the issue light­ly. “[Gates] is a very active par­tic­i­pant in these con­ver­sa­tions,” Mor­rell said. “We have real vital inter­ests at stake here. Rest assured: he is as con­cerned about this as every­one you have seen on tele­vi­sion speak­ing on this, because he feels a per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for all of the troops under his com­mand.”

Mor­rell said a “col­lec­tive” deci­sion will be made by the admin­is­tra­tion about if, when and which top offi­cial will be the best per­son to con­tact the pas­tor direct­ly.

Gates has not issued guid­ance to troops serv­ing in Mus­lim nations, and offi­cials have set no man­dates with­in the Pen­ta­gon in terms of actions to take should vio­lent protests erupt in light of a Quran burn­ing, Mor­rell said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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