GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The anti-Muslim leader of a tiny Florida church backed off his threat to burn the Quran, defusing an international firestorm Thursday after he said he was promised that a planned Islamic center and mosque would be moved away from New York's ground zero. The imam planning the center, however, quickly denied such a deal.
The Rev. Terry Jones had been under intense pressure to abandon his plan to burn the Quran on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. President Barack Obama urged him to listen to "those better angels" and give up his "stunt," saying it would endanger U.S. troops and give Islamic terrorists a recruiting tool. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of calling Jones personally.
Standing outside his 50-member Pentecostal church, the Dove Outreach Center, alongside Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Jones said he relented when Musri assured him that the New York mosque will be moved.
Jones had never invoked the mosque controversy as a reason for his planned protest. He cited his belief that the Quran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.
But he said Thursday that that he prayed about the decision and concluded that if the mosque was moved, it would be a sign from God to call off the Quran burning.
"We are, of course, now against any other group burning Qurans," Jones said. "We would right now ask no one to burn Qurans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it."
Musri thanked Jones and his church members "for making the decision today to defuse the situation and bring to a positive end what has become the world over a spectacle that no one would benefit from except extremists and terrorists" who would use it to recruit future radicals.
After the news conference, however, Musri told The Associated Press there is no deal to move the mosque. He said there was only an agreement for him and Jones to travel to New York and meet Saturday with the imam overseeing plans to build a mosque near ground zero.
"I told the pastor that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved," Musri said. "But there is not any offer from there (New York) that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution."
In New York, the leader of the Islamic center project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said he was surprised by Jones' announcement.
"I am glad that Pastor Jones has decided not to burn any Qurans. However, I have not spoken to Pastor Jones or Imam Musri," Rauf said in a statement. "We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter. We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony."
Jones later insisted that he had struck a deal, without suggesting that he would go back to his Quran-burning plan in light of the imams' denials. He said Musri told him that officials would guarantee that the mosque would be moved.
"We are canceling the event because we have agreed, I take him at his word, he has agreed to move the Ground Zero mosque," Jones said. "I verified that three or four times with witnesses. I trust that man who gave me that. I believe he is a man of integrity, a man of his word, I do not believe that he lied to me."
Jones said that if the mosque is not moved, "then I think Islam is a very poor example of religion. I think that would be very pitiful. I do not expect that."
His decision was made after a firestorm of criticism from leaders around the world. The pope and several other Christian leaders were among those urging him to reconsider his plans, which generated a wave of anger across the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, hundreds of Afghans burned an American flag and chanted "Death to the Christians" to protest the planned Quran burning.
Obama told ABC's "Good Morning America" in an interview aired Thursday that Jones' plan "is completely contrary to our values as Americans."
"And as a very practical matter, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform," Obama said.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell confirmed that Gates called Jones about 4 p.m. EST Thursday - shortly before the pastor's announcement. During the "very brief" call, Gates expressed "his grave concern that going forward with this Quran burning would put the lives of our forces at risk, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan," Morrell said.
Morrell said earlier that the decision to issue a personal appeal was not easy because it could provoke other extremists "who, all they want, is a call from so-and-so." After Gates' call to Jones, Morrell said the secretary's "fundamental baseline attitude about this is that if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform it was a call worth placing."
The cancellation was welcomed in Gainesville, a city of 125,000 anchored by the sprawling University of Florida campus. At least two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in the city had mobilized to plan inclusive events, including Quran readings at services, as a counterpoint to Jones' protest.
Jones' Dove Outreach Center is independent of any denomination. It follows the Pentecostal tradition, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in the modern day. Pentecostals often view themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare against satanic forces.
The pastor was not the only person to inject confusion into the debate over the New York mosque, which is planned to go up two blocks north of the trade center site. Donald Trump, who made a fortune in real estate, offered Thursday to buy out a major investor in the real estate partnership that controls the site where the 13-story Islamic center would be built.
Opponents argue it is insensitive to families and memories of Sept. 11 victims to build a mosque so close to where Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people. Proponents support the project as a reflection of religious freedom and diversity and say hatred of Muslims is fueling the opposition.
In a letter released Thursday by Trump's publicist, Trump told Hisham Elzanaty that he would buy his stake in one of the two lower Manhattan buildings involved in the project for 25 percent more than whatever he paid - if the mosque is moved at least five blocks farther away from the trade center site.
"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 that is destined, in my opinion, to only get worse," the letter said.
Elzanaty's response: No sale.
"This is just a cheap attempt to get publicity and get in the limelight," said his lawyer, Wolodymyr Starosolsky.
He added that the offer's lack of seriousness is evident in the price.
The group collectively paid $4.8 million for the building Trump offered to buy. The other is being leased.
Starosolsky said the real estate partnership had already received two offers in the ballpark of $20 million.
"He knows what the value of the building is. If he were really interested in buying the building, he would have come forward with at least $20 million," Starosolsky said.
Starosolsky added that Elzanaty remains committed to the idea of having a mosque built on at least part of the property.
It's unclear how much control Elzanaty has over the property, which is owned by an eight-member investment group led by El-Gamal's real estate company, Soho Properties.
El-Gamal said Soho Properties controls the site, but didn't elaborate. His spokesman said he couldn't answer questions about the investment team or ownership issues.
In a pair of interviews with the AP this week, Elzanaty said he had invested in the site with an intention of making a profit and was willing to half the land for private development, and maybe all of it if a Muslim group doesn't come forward with enough money to build the mosque.