*** Endangering troops and undermining foreign and domestic policy is not a right. MS ***
TORONTO - The man in charge of Canada's armed forces added his voice Wednesday to a chorus of international condemnation against a tiny Florida church that plans to burn copies of the Muslim holy book this weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Rev. Terry Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., said he's standing by his plan to burn copies of the Qur'an, a move critics around the world say would do little more than inflame tensions and put the lives of Americans abroad at risk.
"This initiative is insulting to Muslims and Canadians of all faiths who understand that freedom of thought and freedom of religion are fundamental to our way of living," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement.
"We call on this pastor to bring people together, not break them apart."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates also echoed objections first raised by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, who warned that the proposed event would place the lives of American troops in jeopardy there and elsewhere.
MacKay said Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are not fighting Islam or Islamic beliefs, but rather "an extremist and brutal enemy... that condones public stonings, pours acid in the faces of Muslim schoolgirls who want a better future, and wishes to rule people by fear, intimidation and violence."
Jones has been under intense pressure from the White House and religious leaders to call off his plan to burn the book Muslims consider the word of God, but so far he's shown no signs of backing down.
Jones told a press conference Wednesday that he's received a lot of encouragement for his protest, with supporters mailing copies of the Islamic holy text to his church, which has about 50 followers. The plan is to incinerated the Qur'ans in a bonfire Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing," said Jones, who took no questions.
Jones has said he's received more than 100 death threats and now wears a .40-calibre pistol strapped to his hip since announcing his plan to burn a book that's at the heart of the Islamic faith and which Muslims insist must be treated with the utmost respect.
Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, took the rare step of a military leader taking a position on a domestic matter when he warned that "images of the burning of a Qur’an would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence."
Petraeus spoke Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the matter, according to a military spokesman Col. Erik Gunhus.
"They both agreed that burning of a Qur’an would undermine our effort in Afghanistan, jeopardize the safety of coalition troopers and civilians," Gunhus said, and would "create problems for our Afghan partners ... as it likely would be Afghan police and soldiers who would have to deal with any large demonstrations."
Clinton said that the pastor's plans were outrageous and urged Jones to cancel the event.
"It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people, can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world's attention, but that's the world we live in right now," Clinton said.
"It is unfortunate, it is not who we are."
Canadians. MacKay said, take pride in their country's fundamental values of freedom of religion and thought.
"We are a country built on waves of immigrants who made Canada and who we are today," he said.
"Our values are what binds Canadians together during our hardest battles and our darkest moments. We recognized the strength of these attributes in our society on the morning of September 11th, 2001, and we rallied our spirits in the days that followed that terrible day with the knowledge that respecting our uniqueness brings Canadians closer together."
In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in Washington, Clinton called the plans "outrageous" and "aberrational" and said they do not represent America or American values of religious tolerance and inclusiveness.
She also lamented that the tiny Dove World Outreach Center congregation in Gainesville had gotten so much attention for what she called a "distrustful and disgraceful" means of marking the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world's attention, but that's the world we live in right now," Clinton said. "It is unfortunate; it is not who we are," she said.
Through Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan, Gates added his voice to the growing controversy.
"No one is questioning the right to do these things. We are questioning whether that's advisable considering the consequences that could occur," Lapan said. "Gen. Petraeus has been very vocal and very public on this, and his position reflects the secretary's as well."
Petraeus said Tuesday that "images of the burning of a Qur’an would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan and around the world to inflame public opinion and incite violence." In addition, Gen. Ray Odierno, the former top commander in Iraq, said Wednesday he feared extremists would use the incident to sow hatred against U.S. troops overseas.
In Iraq, where almost 50,000 American troops still are posted, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, joined in the condemnation. They called the plan "disrespectful, divisive and disgraceful."
"As this holy month of Ramadan comes to a close and Iraqis prepare to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, we join with the citizens of Iraq and of every nation to repudiate religious intolerance and to respect and defend the diversity of faiths of our fellow man," they said in a joint statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Clinton appealed for Jones to reconsider and cancel. In the event that he carries out the plan, she suggested to laughter from the audience, that the news media ignore it.
"We are hoping that the pastor decides not to do this," she said. "We're hoping against hope that if he does, it won't be covered as an act of patriotism."
"We want to be judged by who we are as a nation, not by something that is so aberrational and we will make that case as strongly as possible."
— With files from The Associated Press