(CNSNews.com) – A week that culminates in the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the end of Ramadan began with angry protests in two Muslim countries over plans by a small church in Florida to burn copies of the Quran on Saturday.
On the eve of the planned event, President Obama will hold a relatively rare presidential press conference, where the heated debates surrounding the “Ground Zero mosque” and the Quran-burning plans will likely come up.
Tensions have been simmering for weeks over news that the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville intends to burn copies of the Quran “in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam.”
The non-denominational church says it plans to go ahead despite threats, the denial of a bonfire permit, and appeals by Christian organizations and others for it to reconsider.
Last month leading Islamic bodies issued condemnatory statements and small protests were held in Jakarta.
This week brought fresh protests in Indonesia and Afghanistan, a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a warning from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan that the planned event may put American troops deployed there in harm’s way.
“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” General David Petraeus told The Wall Street Journal. “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.”
"Images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan -- and around the world -- to inflame public opinion and incite violence," Petraeus told The Associated Press.
In 2005, at least 15 Afghans were killed during a week of rioting after Newsweek reported that a copy of the Quran was thrown into a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The Pentagon said investigations found no evidence to support the claim, which the newsmagazine retracted.
Protests across the Muslim world in 2006 over the publication of newspaper cartoons satirizing Mohamed witnessed fatalities in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Nigeria.
In a statement Monday, the U.S. Embassy said the U.S. government was “deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups.”
“Americans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds reject the offensive initiative by this small group in Florida,” it said. “A great number of American voices are protesting the hurtful statements made by this organization.”
Until now, the administration has remained mostly quiet on the matter. In early August, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe wrote a letter to U.N. human rights commissioner Navanethem Pillay, after Pillay had been approached by an envoy representing the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
“The United States government in no way condones such acts of disrespect,” Donahoe told Pillay. “To the contrary, the United States is deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups.”
‘Eternal and timeless message’
The OIC has spearheaded a decade-long campaign at the U.N. to have what it calls “religious defamation” outlawed worldwide. Controversial plans to build a mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero and the Florida Quran-burning event have received coverage in the OIC’s regular “Islamophobia” reports and are certain to feature prominently in future U.N. discussions on “defamation” resolutions.
The U.S. and other Western governments have pushed back against the “defamation” drive, which free speech groups and religious freedom advocates say is an attempt to shield Islam and Islamic practices from legitimate scrutiny.
In her letter, Donahoe touched on the freedom of speech issue.
“The United States strongly believes that the best antidote to intolerance is a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minority religious groups, and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression,” she said.
Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to Mohammed over a 23-year period in the seventh century.
“The glorious Quran is eternal and a timeless message given by Almighty Allah to all human kind to stay on the path of goodness during the period of our mortal life,” OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said at a ceremony in Istanbul on Sunday.
Ihsanoglu cited the Florida church plans and Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders’ controversial 2009 documentary linking the Quran to terror attacks as examples of a “rising trend of Islamophobia in the West.”
“Unfortunately despite all the peaceful messages and lofty teachings of the Holy Quran, negative campaigns against Islam and the Holy Quran are increasing,” he said.
On its Web site, Dove World Outreach Center lists ten reasons why it thinks the Quran should be destroyed, including its denial of the divinity of Jesus (Muslims view him as a mere prophet and reject the crucifixion narrative) and what it calls the inclusion of “Arabian idolatry, paganism, rites and rituals.”
Online searches for the church’s Web site have climbed significantly over the past month, according to the Web analytics site Alexa.com.
Almost half of the site’s visitors are located in the U.S., but the next biggest proportion (16.5 percent) is in Indonesia, a country where only an estimated 12 percent of the population has access to the Internet.
Canada, Britain, Egypt and Turkey also account for sizeable proportions of visitors to the Dove site.
Dove’s “International Burn a Koran Day” page on Facebook, with its tag line “Islam is of the Devil” – also the name of a book by Dove pastor Terry Jones – had attracted just over 8,000 fans as of early Tuesday.
Facebook does not make available statistics on overall traffic to individual pages but remarks are pouring in steadily – a combination of serious and abusive comments from people supporting and opposing the planned Sept. 11 event.
In Monday’s Kabul demonstration, hundreds of protestors chanting “Death to America” and other slogans were addressed by clerics and lawmakers who called for the withdrawal of coalition forces from the country. Protestors also hurled rocks at a passing U.S. military convoy.
Rallies in half a dozen Indonesian cities at the weekend were organized by the local branch of Hizbut Tahrir, an Islamist group working to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Islamic and minority faith representatives in Indonesia earlier issued a joint statement criticizing the Quran-burning plan and urging the U.S. government to intervene to stop it.
Christian leaders have voiced concern that their community may be targeted in a country where churches periodically face vandalism and the disruption of services by Muslim mobs.
Another radical group, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), in a statement warned of retaliation should the Quran-burning event go ahead. It did not elaborate.
FPI has been linked to the forced closure of churches, and is also known for threats against American and other Westerners, as well as raids on premises where gambling takes place and liquor is available.
‘All eyes will be on us’
This year, Ramadan ends on September 9 or 10, depending on where in the world Muslims are marking the feast of Eid al-Fitr, which traditionally involves three days of festivities.
A number of U.S. Islamic organizations are calling on American Muslims to use to anniversary of 9/11 “in service to your neighbors and your city.”
“All eyes will be on us this Eid and on 9/11,” organizers said in a statement.
“We can imagine what the headlines will be out of New York and Florida. But can you imagine the power of a headline or TV news story that features American Muslims as citizens, giving back to our country?”