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Florida Pastor Still Wants Meeting on New York Islamic Center

The pastor of a small Florida church canceled plans to burn copies of the Koran tomorrow, an act the Obama administration said would endanger U.S. lives, before telling the Associated Press that he was only “suspending” the event.

The pastor, Terry Jones, said last night he was reconsidering whether to hold the book-burning on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks because he had been lied to about the fate of a proposed Islamic community center in New York.

Jones said earlier yesterday that he received “a sign from God” in the form of an assurance that the Islamic center planned near the World Trade Center site would be moved to another location. The owner of the proposed center said there was no agreement to move the project.

“It’s untrue that it’s being moved,” Sharif El-Gamal, owner of the property and chief executive officer of Soho Properties LLC, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “The project will proceed as planned.”

Jones, following pressure from President Barack Obama and a phone call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging him to cancel his Koran-burning plan, said he got the assurance that the center would be moved from Muhammad Musri, leader of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.

“We have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday,” Jones said during a televised news conference in Gainesville.

No Agreement

Musri, who appeared with Jones at the news conference, said later there was no agreement to move the Park51 center, only a plan to meet and discuss it.

After being told that Musri said there was no agreement, Jones initially said he wasn’t reviving his plans to burn the Koran. Musri “gave me his word, and that’s what I’m going to go on,” Jones said. Later, the pastor told the AP he thought Musri “clearly lied to us” about moving the mosque.

Musri said he was working to set up a meeting in New York tomorrow with Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim leader behind the mosque plan, to discuss the matter.

In an interview with ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour,” Rauf said that, if he moved the Islamic center, “the headline in the Muslim world will be Islam is under attack in America. This will strengthen the radicals in the Muslim world.” ABC released a partial transcript of the interview.

Gates Telephones

Gates called Jones to urge him to cancel the Koran burning after conferring with other Obama administration officials about “how to proceed,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters.

Gates expressed “his grave concern that going forward with this Koran burning puts the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan and urged him not to proceed,” Morrell said.

Jones told reporters that Gates was “very gracious” and that the pastor had agreed to reconsider.

Also yesterday, Donald J. Trump offered to buy the site of the proposed community center for the price paid plus 25 percent. As part of the bid, any community center would be located at least five blocks farther from the World Trade Center site, Trump said.

‘Inflammatory’ Situation

“I am making this offer as a resident of New York and citizen of the United States, not because I think the location is a spectacular one (because it is not), but because it will end a very serious, inflammatory and highly divisive situation,” Trump wrote in a letter to Hisham Elzanaty, a businessman who said he provided most of the financing for the two buildings where the center would be built.

Elzanaty didn’t immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office is unaware of any change in plans for the center, said spokeswoman Jessica Scaperotti. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Obama yesterday urged Jones to cancel the plan to burn Korans, saying it was a “stunt” that could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American force in Afghanistan is set to swell to 100,000. There are about 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Obama said the pastor’s plan would help U.S. enemies, and he called it a “a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda.” The president was interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.

Iraq, Iran Clerics Respond

Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric urged Muslims not to be provoked by the pastor’s plan, and he called for tolerance toward Christians.

“We denounce the assault on the Holy Koran,” Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in a statement on his website. “We urge Muslims, wherever they are, to exercise the utmost restraint” and “do not do what would harm Christians.” Muslims today are observing the festival of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

In Shiite-led Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani warned of repercussions if Jones goes ahead, according to the Iranian state-owned Mehr news agency.

“I warn Christian leaders that, if such a catastrophic and inhuman incident takes place in the United States, we will hold the U.S. government and President Obama accountable,” he said.

Blaspheming such a holy book is like blaspheming all holy books and all prophets, he added.

To contact the reporters on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net

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