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09.07.10

Florida's Quran-Burning Pastor

Rev. Terry Jones gained infamy this week for his call to burn hundreds of Qurans. Lynn Wadell on his obsession with Braveheart and accusations that he took money from his own church.

Rev. Terry Jones gained infamy this week for his call to burn hundreds of Quran. Lynn Waddell on his obsession with Braveheart and accusations that he took money from his own church.

To most Gainesville, Florida locals, Rev. Terry Jones is a fringe extremist with a tiny congregation at the Dove World Outreach Center, a church whose existence they have long tried to ignore. But Jones's latest widely publicized campaign to burn hundreds of copies of the Holy Quran on the anniversary of 9-11 has made that all but impossible—and elevated him from relative obscurity to international infamy.

“He felt that no one was speaking out about Islam. He was beginning to preach and speak out about that and that was not popular.”

The initially small “International Burn a Koran Day” event has sparked international outrage at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric and conspiracy theories are at a high. News of Jones's planned event reached Afghanistan, where hundreds took to the street in protest. In Gainesville, the fire department refused to give Jones’ a permit. General David Petraeus himself has asked Jones to stand down.

But Jones is sticking to his plan. “We must send a send a clear message to radical Islam,” Jones said to news cameras outside his church this week. “We will not be controlled by their fear, we will not be dominated. We feel it is time for America to be America.”

In response to the acid response his campaign has received, the lanky 58-year-old with a bushy, grey handlebar mustache now walks his 20-acre church campus with a pistol holstered to his hip. “We've gotten 100 or more death threats, some of them graphic," Jones told the Tampa Tribune last week. "The latest one was from some people heading here, a group of three, armed with automatic weapons, armed with explosives. They said they were going to kill me and blow up the building."


Pastor Jones defends quran burning.

Video screenshot

Jones, who would not make himself available for comment for this story, has long been a radical provocateur and successful in gathering a following, albeit a small one, of those willing to soak up his extremist messages. His fear of a Muslim takeover dates back long before 9-11, to when he ran a sister church in Cologne, Germany, said long-time parishioner Fran Ingram, who sometimes blogs on Jones's church website. For 30 years, Jones led about 1,000 parishioners at the church in a poor German community. As the community grew with more Turkish immigrants who were predominately Muslim, his sharp message condemning their faith wasn’t well received, Ingram says. “At the time, political control by Islam was rising,” Ingram says. “He felt that no one was speaking out about Islam. He was beginning to preach and speak out about that and that was not popular.”

The Problem With Burning Korans by Tunku Varadarajan

History's Greatest Book Burners by Judith Miller
His estranged daughter by his first wife has given a different take on why he and his second wife Sylvia left Cologne. In an interview last year with the Gainesville Sun Emma Jones claimed that her father left after church members questioned his frequent dips into the church kitty for personal luxuries and salaries for his eBay business. She called the church a “cult,” saying parishioners were persuaded to give up their belongings and work for his business, TS and Company.

Jones brought his anti-Islamic views and eBay business with him to the small charismatic mother church in Gainesville. Since taking over in 2008, he’s stored his merchandise of used furniture in a church building and listed the business’ home address there on state corporate filings. He also wasted little time initiating controversial evangelical campaigns.

His church’s extreme beliefs came on the radar of Gainesville locals in 2009 when his church put up signs that screamed “Islam is of the Devil.” Shortly afterwards an associate minister’s daughters wore T-shirts bearing the same message to school. They were promptly sent home and, perhaps as a result, this school year all students must wear uniforms.

Earlier this year, Jones crusaded against a gay mayoral candidate and his church posted a large sign with the inflammatory message: “No homo mayor.” The candidate was subsequently was elected as the city’s first openly gay mayor.

Among followers he and his assistant minister are spoken of in gushing terms. “I think they are wonderful, godly people,” said Ingram, who’s been in the church for 30 years. “They are very courageous. They speak the truth when others are afraid to.” She refers questions about the church to Jones’s book Islam is the Devil, and his voluminous library of sermons distributed on YouTube and podcasts.

By all appearances, Jones and his wife live a comfortable lifestyle. Facebook pages show him in shorts and a biker T-shirt on the back of a shiny Harley, and Alachua County property records list he and his wife as owning two apartment houses, and their business, owning five. His wife owns a waterfront condo three hours away in the beach town of Treasure Island near St. Petersburg, Florida.

The couple also has use of the church’s luxury 1,500-square-foot parson’s quarters. The metal, cavernous church itself, by contrast, is nothing fancy. A drop-down ceiling grips the metal roof and cheap carpet lines its floors.

On the wall of his dark office hangs a poster of the movie Braveheart, a nod to his hero and the name of his online ministry. Its slogan: “Every man dies, not every man really lives.”

For now, Jones with television crews from around the world seeking his presence, he may be living his dream. But like the slogan says, everything dies. The church’s lender has reportedly called in its loan. The Dove World Outreach Church campus is on the market for $2.9 million, reduced $1.1 million “for quick sale.”

Lynn Waddell is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. She's a former staff writer of the Las Vegas Sun and The Birmingham News.