Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Ed Pilkington in New York and Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
guardian.co.uk , Friday 20 April 2012 13.58 EDT
Florida pastor Terry Jones said of last year's Qu'ran burning: 'What happened last time and what could happen this time is not our responsibility. All we did was burn a book.'
The Pentagon is appealing to Florida pastor Terry Jones against repeating last year's burning of the Qur'ran and images of Muhammad that led to widespread rioting and deaths round the world.
US officials are monitoring the situation and the military is fearful for the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere if Jones goes ahead with his plan, announced on his website, to set fire to the Qur'an next week.
Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida and self-appointed scourge of Islam, has set a deadline of 5pm on Saturday April 28 for his demands to be met for the release of a Christian religious leader in Iran.
If the Iranian cleric Youcef Nadarkhani is still imprisoned, Jones says he will set fire to a Qur'n and multiple images of Muhammad.
The threat from Jones comes on top of a row over the publication this week by the Los Angeles Times of pictures showing US troops with dismembered bodies in Afghanistan in 2010 and the apparently accidental burning of Qur'ans and Islamic religious documents by US troops at Bagram airport in Afghanistan in February that left 41 dead and more than 200 injured.
The last time Jones organised such a spectacle was on March 20 last year when he burned a Qur'an dressed in a judicial robe in the grounds of his church. The act prompted attacks on a UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan in which seven UN employees died, and there were other fatal protests around the region.
Asked by the Guardian whether the cost in terms of lives lost of his previous escapade did not make him pause, Jones said that the impact of his Qur'an burning was not his responsibility. "What happened last time and what could happen this time is not our responsibility. All we did was burn a book. It posed no threat to anyone else, yet riots broke out several thousand miles away – which just proves how extreme Islam is."
However, Jones said that the loss of [life] made it more difficult to repeat the exercise. "That's why we have been in contact on a daily basis with the Iranian embassy and religious leaders to see if we could get some dialogue going given the severity of what could happen."
Commander Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Guardian: "We are aware of Pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn a Qur'an, and are monitoring the situation. The last time Pastor Jones burned a Qur'an, back in March of 2011, more than 16 people died and more than 90 people were injured from the resulting protests. We hope Pastor Jones will take into account the safety and welfare of deployed US military personnel before engaging in such an activity again."
In the run-up to his March 2011 burning, there were numerous interventions of senior US officials, right up to Barack Obama, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the then defence secretary, Robert Gates, who phoned Jones in person. So far this time, Jones said, he has yet to be contacted by any official figure.
This year has already been disastrous for relations between Afghans and US forces, and there are certain to be protests if Jones does burn the Qur'an, although authorities will be alert to possible violence after deadly demonstrations in February.
Afghans took to the streets over the burning of copies of the Qur'an by US troops at a major US airbase. Around 30 Afghans died, and during a week of rioting six US troops were also killed by Afghan forces they served with.
Afghanistan is a conservative and deeply religious country, where outrage at desecration of Islam's holy book transcends boundaries of ideology, wealth and education, and there is little understanding of the legal constraints on authorities in America.
Afghans want the American government to prevent Jones from going ahead.
Sayed Hussani Balkhi, a Kabul member of parliament, said: "Burning the holy book is a big sin. This action has to be condemned by the international community. If this person doesn't stop and he burns the holy book again, then the patience of the Afghan people will end, so the result of that will be the ordinary people will join with the Taliban.
"And if the American people don't stop this person, then the people of Afghanistan will stand on their own feet against them."
Maulavi Mohammad Qalamuddin, deputy head of the virtue and vice ministry under the Taliban regime, said: "This person who is planning to burn the holy book in Florida is an ignorant person. He is crazy, like an animal. This man is going to make the Muslim people of Afghanistan emotional … It is the job of the American government to stop him and capture him."
There are also fears that if Jones does go ahead, his behaviour could be used as insurgent propaganda.
"Islam doesn't allow us to dishonour the Christian holy book, so it is the job of Christians to respect the holy Qur'an as well," said Jamshed Hashimi, a 45-year-old teacher at one of the private universities of Kabul. "It is the job of the Americans to stop this person, otherwise the militants, the insurgents will use this opportunity and the people will help them."
The Nato-led coaltion in Afghanistan referred comments to the US, and the office of President Hamid Karzai could not immediately be reached for comment
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