Pakistan Stoked Anger About Qur’an-Burning Incident

By Patrick Goodenough | April 4, 2011 | 4:35am EDT

Pastor Terry Jones presides over the “trial” of the Qur’an at his church in Gainesville, Florida on Sunday, March 20, 2011. (Image: Jones Web site)

( – The news that a small Florida church burned a copy of the Qur’an on March 20 went virtually unreported in most of the world – with Pakistan the chief exception – until the eruption of violence in Afghanistan on Friday.

Since Friday, protests have occurred in at least five major Afghan centers, with violence in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Kandahar in the south killing at least 23 people, including seven foreign U.N. staffers and two Afghan police officers.

Sen. Richard Durbin told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that pastor Terry Jones was “looking for publicity. And as long as he gets that publicity, he will continue this irresponsible conduct.”

Commentators and others also have raised concerns about the publicity given to Jones and his handful of followers.

But, in stark contrast to the massive coverage of Jones’ threat last year to burn copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11 – a plan canceled two days before the scheduled event – the media largely ignored his latest exploit in the run-up to March 20, and coverage was restrained afterwards.

In January, Jones’s church in Gainesville announced plans for an “International Judge the Qur’an Day.” A “trial” would be held, with Islam’s revered text facing charges of “inciting murder, rape and terrorist activities.”

Between March 6 and 18, Jones issued a series of press releases on the forthcoming event. Searches on the Nexis news database indicate that the announcement drew practically no media coverage, in the U.S. or elsewhere.

On the evening of March 20, the “trial” went ahead with Jones presiding. It ended with another pastor setting alight a kerosene-soaked copy of the Qur’an.

A brief Agence France Presse (AFP) report said that although the event was open to the public fewer than 30 people attended. A subsequent local media report said the only journalists who turned up on the day were an AFP stringer, several students and an unassigned photographer. A video clip was posted online, however.

The following day, the Organization of the Islamic Conference – the bloc of 56 Muslim-majority nations – issued a statement warning about “unforeseen and volatile consequences of such outrageous and irresponsible acts that could hurt the deep seated religious sentiments of over 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.” Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva drew its attention to the Gainesville incident.

On March 22, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in a speech to the federal parliament, condemned the incident “in the strongest possible words,” and Pakistan’s foreign ministry called the burning a “despicable act.”

Dozens of reports on the Qur’an burning appeared in Pakistani media outlets on March 22-23, but the story received negligible coverage elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Google Trends, which tracks worldwide Internet traffic, showed a blip on the graph for news references to “Pastor Terry Jones” on March 21-22. (The graph then flat-lined until March 31-April 1, when it shot up steeply.)

Afghans protest in Kandahar on Sunday, April 3, 2011 against the burning of the Qur’an in Florida last month. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

On March 22, Pakistani religious organizations mobilized. Dozens or religious leaders met in Lahore to plan a response, and announced plans for public protests across Pakistan. In a statement the meeting accused the U.S. government and Pope Benedict XVI of responsibility for the “blasphemy.”

One of the participants, a group which the U.S. State Department calls a “front operation” for the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Toiba, announced that a reward of some $1.2 million would be paid to anyone who kills Jones.

Still, little media coverage or reaction was evident beyond Pakistan’s borders. One exception was in Lebanon, where the Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah condemned “the crime of burning the holy Qur’an,” accusing the U.S. government of responsibility, and calling on churches to “take the appropriate stance to prevent the achievement of the malignant objectives of the great conspiracy.”

On March 22, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter issued a statement condemning “an isolated act done by a small group of people that is contrary to American traditions” but also referring to the “U.S. commitment to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”

At the HRC in Geneva on the same day, the U.S. ambassador condemned the “desecration of a holy text” and said the U.S. government “in no way condones such acts of disrespect.”

Iran, Afghanistan Join Condemnation

On March 24, Iran waded in, its foreign ministry condemning the “blasphemous and repugnant” act. Iran wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging him “to react to this desecration which has hurt the feelings of more than one billion Muslims” and called for those responsible to be put on trial.

Friday, March 25 saw protests in Pakistan. In Lahore, an Islamist federal lawmaker urged Islamic countries to “denounce friendship with Christians and Jews” and embrace jihad in the face of a Western “crusade.”

A “shari’a court” attached to a major mainstream Muslim organization declared Jones guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to death. The organization demanded that the government expel the U.S. ambassador within two weeks, or face much bigger demonstrations, including a march to Islamabad.

On the same day, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the Qur’an burning, and urged the U.S. and the U.N. to prosecute those responsible.

It was only then that reports on Florida incident begin to appear in Afghan media, with the state-run dailies Hewad and Anis and the pro-government Weesa daily all reporting on Karzai’s condemnation.

Back in Pakistan, a large anti-U.S. rally was held in Islamabad on Sunday March 27. Munawar Hasan, leader of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, told the gathering that if Pakistan and other Islamic countries had any sense of honor they would cut off all ties with the U.S.

During the course of last week, more reports on the Qur’an-burning incident appeared, the vast majority of them limited to Pakistan.

Then on April 1, following Friday prayers at a prominent mosque in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and reported claims by imams that hundreds of copies of the Qur’an had in fact been burned, protestors stormed a lightly-guarded U.N. compound in an attack that left seven foreign U.N. workers and four Afghan civilians dead.

White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement from President Obama condemning the attack, although Carney declined to comment on the motivation behind it.

Protests in Kandahar on Saturday left at least 10 people dead and more than 80 others wounded. In a fresh statement, Obama then said “the desecration of any holy text, including the Qur’an, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry. However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity.”

Protests continued on Sunday in Kandahar, where two Afghan police officers were killed. Meanwhile hundreds of students protested in the eastern city of Jalalabad, shouting anti-U.S. slogans and burning an effigy of Obama.

During a meeting with U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Gen. David Petraeus, Karzai repeated his call for U.S. and U.N. to put Jones on trial, and urged the U.S. Senate condemn the Qur’an-burning.

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