US President Barack Obama warned a Florida church's plan to burn Qurans would bolster Al-Qaeda on Thursday as the church at the center of the storm defied a growing chorus of global outrage.
In his first reaction to the planned torching by the evangelical church on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Obama said it would be a "recruitment bonanza" for the Islamists behind the plane bombings.
"You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan," Obama told ABC television in an interview. "This is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda," Obama said.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari also condemned the plan as "despicable" while his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said it would torpedo attempts to reconcile Muslims and the West.
"Indonesia and the US are building or bridging relations between the Western world and Islam. If the Koran burning occurs, then those efforts will be useless," Yudhoyono, leader of the world's biggest Muslim mation, wrote in a letter to Obama.
Even Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who sparked Muslim outrage in 2006 with a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, said the plans by the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, to burn the Qurans went too far.
But with condemnation raining down from top US officials, the military, the Vatican and other religious and world leaders, the church refused to halt plans to torch the Islamic holy book on Saturday.
"As of this time we have no intention of canceling," Pastor Terry Jones told a press conference here Wednesday, adding his evangelical church had received numerous messages of support.
Jones had indicated he was praying for guidance on whether to go ahead with the incendiary event after warnings from US Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus that US and allied troops could be targeted in revenge.
"We understand the general's concerns and we are still considering it," Jones said, but swiftly added he had been contacted by a special forces soldier who told him "the people in the field are 100 percent behind us." Petraeus renewed his public opposition to the plan Wednesday, telling NBC the act could be as harmful as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, in which images of naked prisoners abused by Americans went viral in 2004.
The Qurans-burning images would "be in cyberspace forever, they'd be non-biodegradable," Petraeus warned. After his press conference Wednesday, Jones reportedly met inside his church with a Florida imam, in a sign that the renegade pastor might be willing to tone down or even cancel his event.
According to the Gainesville Sun, the imam of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Muhammad Musri, met with Jones for 40 minutes in the pastor's office. "I told him the world would admire your courage if you come out and say, 'Because of my devotion to Christ and the Bible, I'm going to do the right thing.'" the Sun quoted Musri as saying.
The gun-toting pastor, who has received death threats, says the aim of Saturday's three-hour evening event is to send a message to radical Islamists that "it is possibly time for us in a new way to actually stand up and confront terrorism."
The planned torching of some 200 Korans comes amid an angry debate over plans to build an Islamic center in New York close to where the World Trade Center once stood. Many fear if the Qurans burning goes ahead it will further raise anti-Islamic sentiment.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply disturbed by the plans, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel decried them as "abhorrent." Officials in the small university town of Gainesville -- reluctantly dragged into the global spotlight -- met Wednesday to draw up contingency plans.
City spokesman Bob Woods told AFP that church officials would be violating a ban on open-air burning and would be subject to a 250-dollar fine if they set fire to the books. But there is little they can do to stop the event from going ahead, protected as it is by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech.