09.11.10

Terry Jones: Inside the Koran Burner’s Church

Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran and broadcast the images to the Muslim world—inciting an Afghan mob to kill up to 20 U.N. staffers. Leon Dische Becker meets the congregants.

Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran and broadcast the images to the Muslim world—inciting an Afghan mob to kill U.N. staffers. Leon Dische Becker meets the congregants. Plus, John Avlon on Terry Jones' excuses.

In early September 2010, the Dove World Outreach Center, a tiny Christian congregation from Gainesville, Florida, commanded the attention of the world media for several news cycles, with their plan to burn a pile of Korans on the anniversary of September 11. A day before the anniversary of the attacks, facing considerable pressure from government officials, the church abruptly canceled the bonfire. The church pastor, Terry Jones, promised never again to burn Islamic holy books. By March 20th of this year, starved for attention, he'd apparently reneged. Broadcasting live on a Coptic satellite channel, available throughout the Middle East, Jones and his followers put the Koran on mock trial, and eventually convicted it on murder, rape, and terrorism charges. Visitors to the church website got to vote for the appropriate penalty and overwhelmingly chose incineration. The Arabic channel broke off its live stream for the incendiary portion of the proceedings, but Jones made sure the scene was available on his website. Assistant pastor Wayne Sapp doused the book in gasoline and set it on fire with a stove lighter.

The mainstream American media, uncharacteristically observant of their public responsibility, largely chose to ignore the spectacle. But thanks to the satellite stream and the church's shameless self-promotion online, word and images of the event soon reached its intended target audience in the Middle East. Today, in Mazar-i-Sharif, usually one of Afghanistan's safest cities, the first violent backlash occurred. Responding to news of the desecration, a crowd of outraged protesters overran a U.N. compound, killing at least seven foreign staff members. Back home in oblivion, Pastor Jones refuses to take any responsibility for the deaths, though Secretary Gates had warned him of precisely such outcomes in their conversation last September. Instead, he feels vindicated. "This just shows you the dangers of radical Islam," he says.

So just who is this pastor who shot overnight from total obscurity to international notoriety? To understand Pastor Terry Jones, it helps to visit his church as I did.

Pastor Jones refuses to take any responsibility for the deaths. Instead, he feels vindicated.

On September 7th, I went to the epicenter of this international controversy, the World Dove Outreach Center, which lies only five miles outside of central Gainesville. When I arrived a week ago, the controversy had all the trimmings of a local hullabaloo. But certain signs—the ominous appearance of trucks with satellites on them, the sudden irrelevance of next week's home game against the South Florida Bulls—suggested that this would be no pedestrian event.

To reach the church, a visitor must cut through the jungle on the outskirts of Gainesville, following a winding two-lane road and tattered power lines. One cannot miss the long driveway because it is announced by three bold signs: "Islam" "is of the" "Devil". (This isn't merely a statement, it is also advertising: The pastor recently published a book with the same title.) Visting a few days before the 9/11 anniversary and only hours after 3,000 protesters demonstrated against Dove Outreach in the streets of Jakarta, I was surprised to find that the premises were entirely unguarded. The church had received several hundred death threats by mail, email, and telephone over the last weeks—some of them credible and many of them detailed. "If something happens to us, the police feel like we brought it upon ourselves," Luke Jones, the pastor's son said happily.

The church building has the external size and shape of an army barracks. The doors to the entrance hall are two-way mirrors, and a partially shattered plastic cross hangs on the outside wall (the work of vandals, I am told). The entrance doors swung open before I could push them and Wayne, the second pastor, welcomed me inside, a handgun at his waist. Flags of 30 random nations hang from the corners of the hall (among them: Jamaica, China, Lebanon); a pink satin curtain adorns the wall behind the pulpit; above it, a plastic white dove roosts under a giant wooden cross.

The service kicked off with a hectic performance—six middle-age women belted a high-energy rock 'n' roll song for Jesus, accompanied by a five-piece band made up of four small boys and an elderly man. Attendance at the service on September 7th was sparse, with almost half of the congregation up on stage. The outsider could only marvel that this is the notorious group that's setting the world on fireseven men in country formal: jean-blue shirts, buttoned-up, handgun tucked, wedding rings blazing; 12 women in saloon conservative: pants-suits over frilly shirts and makeup; a whole gaggle of smartly dressed children; a total of 30 people, looking giddy, like a group of pranksters that had successfully caused the clash of civilizations with one crank phone call.

The music proved to be a courtly preamble to the entrance of their leader. Finally, he arrived, a man whose effigy would burn in Kabul just a few hours later: head pastor Terry Jones, the man receiving heavenly directives to incinerate Korans. Jones looks like Josef Fritzl with a Floridian tan. Dressed in a black tuxedo, he walked solemnly to his seat. His wife, Sylvia, leaped onto the stage—the other singers regrouped behind her. The assembled girl group launched into a power ballad for Jesus, gyrating wildly.

And then the pastor finally preached. He knew how to command attention, whispering powerful statements and screaming meaningless ones, and he looked comfortable behind his pulpit. He flashed the gun strapped under his tuxedo ("Esther didn't even have a 40 cal semi-automatic!"), and complained about rumors circulating on the Internet ("they accused me of being a pedophile—though they know it's not true!"). His wife, Sylvia, beamed at him. She is the church’s composer, writing all the hymns that the congregation sings. Comic relief did not fail him, either. "We've had something worse than Moslems here…" Pastor Jones called out, and turned to me. "Reporters!"

This is particularly funny if one considers how aggressively Pastor Jones courted publicity. Shortly after he announced the Koran burning, the church drastically beefed up its presence in the unholy depths of the Web. They invested in a glossy webpage and won several thousand fans on Facebook (its fan page boasts 12,000 followers)—some of whom announced their intention to burn Korans of the own on September 11th; others simply sent the church a copy of the Koran to incinerate (they received 200). It didn't take long for the first death threats to arrive.

Producers at CNN saw the church's Facebook page and booked Pastor Jones to have anchor Rick Sanchez shake his head at him. All the other networks followed suit and a media frenzy was born. MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked Jones if anyone could dissuade him from his stated plans—former President George W. Bush, for instance, a personal hero of Jones'. But Jones offered only one option for concession—he said he was willing to call off the book-burning if Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf discontinued his plans to construct an Islamic center near ground zero. When this offer was not treated with serious consideration, he vacillated briefly by stating he would leave the final decision to burn or not to burn the Koran up to God.

His sermon that afternoon was entirely dedicated to his incendiary project. Any churchgoer hoping for more spiritual sustenance went hungry. For the moment, the pastor was not interested in the spirit, not when to his mind he was engaged in a struggle of biblical importance.

So he evoked the tale of Esther, Mordecai, and Haman—a story that has been used to justify everything from preemptive war to drunken costume parties. He said that Islam is Haman (the Persian nobleman, and commander of a vast military, who held secret plans to exterminate all the Jews in his kingdom) and Dove Outreach is Mordecai (the wise Jew that refuses to bow to Haman, provoking the hotheaded Persian into speeding up his evil plans, eventually leading to his exposure and murder). "Mordecai will not bow! This church will stand up!" he cried out, his voice cracking.

Though Jones always maintained that he hoped nobody would come to harm as a result of his book-burning, he also considers a clash between Western and Eastern civilizations "inevitable." Christians are said to be ill-prepared for this battle, and Jones chastises them for being too soft ("Wieners!"), compared to their disciplined opponents from the Middle East. The people at Dove Outreach say they believe that Muslims have conspired to invade the West and impose their values upon the people living there—somehow they will launch a combined effort. It was Pastor Jones’ idea to lure them out of hiding by burning Korans as bait.

The cry of "Wiener" turned out to be pivotal. "Islam is not going to back down!" he warned. "As the people in Germany know.” Several voices in the front row shouted enthusiastic "yeahs" in response, and their accents were German. There are nine German emigrees at Dove Outreach, two of whom are pastors. Terry Jones himself spent 30 years in Cologne, as a missionary and church leader. When he returned to the U.S. amid accusations of financial and labor abuses, a small German contingent followed him. They brought baggage: a deep aversion to everything Islamic.

"Our campaign against Islam started in Germany," the pastor's son Luke, 29, assured me in a thick West German accent. He wouldn’t specify what forms the campaign took there. Like other members of Dove Outreach, Luke comes from Cologne. More specifically, he stems from the Kalk district of the city—an area with a large Turkish population. "I grew up with Muslims!" Luke spoke with wide eyes, as if he was reminiscing about a past career in extreme sports. "Turks, Arabs, and Bosnians." Luke lived through his "druggy" phase with these boys—a bonding experience—but certain boundaries remained between them. "I could never joke about their religion," he said, shaking his head disparagingly, visibly annoyed. "These are guys who sleep with women, drink, and I can't talk to them honestly about Islam." What he found more troubling, however, was their unyielding loyalty to other Muslims. As a Christian, he always felt like a second-class friend.

Luke admits a certain admiration for Muslims because at least they are proud of who they are, and willing to fight for it. Luke came to the New World for that reason—in America one can be proud of who one is, and proud to be a Christian, he says. He was recently ordained a pastor in his father's church and a half-finished American flag tattoo extends from his wrist to his elbow.

I returned on Wednesday, September 8th to find that the 200 feet of grassland between the road and the church had turned into a camping ground for television trucks. Pastor Jones was in high demand: Cameramen relay-raced across the field when his red face peeked out of the church doors to give one of his many impromptu press conferences (at least one of which was dedicated to condemning the  webhost that dropped the church website). Dozens of admirers loitered near the entrance hoping to get an autograph from the pastor, to deliver their Korans personally or to give him a letter that they said God had instructed them to write. I called Jones and discovered that he now had an agent.

Congregation members ducked from the assembled paparazzi. Only Junior Pastor Luke Jones hung around, having a grand time speaking to every reporter that approached him. He bragged that the Obama administration was planning to arrest the congregation or somehow dispose of them otherwise. Apropos, the security precautions for the ceremony were announced: Only the five church pastors and several hundred police would be allowed on the church property for the bonfire. Despite those regulations, Pastor Jones reassured the press that members of his church were ready to give their lives for this cause. Camera teams walked along the road to plot the best angle to capture the literary carnage.

Extremists throughout the United States had invested high hopes in Pastor Jones, while his own small group of family and followers revered his uncompromising determination. Surely the pastor did not want to let them down. He was carrying the weight of the world’s opprobrium on his shoulders—could he just shrug it off?

Imam Musri, sitting in his office in Orlando, about 100 miles south of Gainesville, was convinced that Jones didn't have a choice. He decided to drive to World Dove Outreach Center to take a closer look at the people involved. Junior pastor Luke opened the church entrance on the 8th to find Musri and his assistant standing there. "The press was watching we didn't want to disrespect the guy," Luke says. He brought him to his father. They had a short meeting without result. "We don't know if anyone sent him," Luke says. Imam Musri maintains that he visited Dove Outreach on his own impetus. 

Later that day, the imam called Jones and they agreed to hold a more substantial meeting on the following day. That Jones was willing to meet with him a second time indicated to Musri that the pastor was getting cold feet. "I had the suspicion that he was looking for a reason to call it quits," the imam told me.

When the imam returned Thursday, he encountered a man who was visibly afraid, and Musri didn't seek to allay his fears. The pastor had planned to make his final decision on Saturday. With the authority of 40 years of Koranic study under his belt, Musri explained to him why that wouldn't work. "I told him that if he waits another day, then we'll go into Eid ul-Fitr with this matter unresolved. Which means that one billion muslims will go to their mosques and hear about you. They don't know you have only 30 members or less."

Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called to offer Jones some choice words over the phone. That didn't affect Jones as much as a call he received from a Christian woman living in Pakistan. These were people the pastor had never considered, he said later.

The imam is a talented negotiator, meaning he understands something about pride. He also had gleaned the obvious about the pastor: that he was now almost fatally addicted to attention. The pastor knew that if he went through with the book burning, he would have to go into hiding, and that meant his public position, along with the books, would also be going up in smoke. But giving in could also mean fading into insignificance. The pastor needed another gig. The imam, who is also an opponent of the “ground zero mosque,” suggested that the two of them visit Imam Feisal in New York. Pastor Jones could parlay his role as worst person in the world into a job as a respected diplomat. Pastor Jones liked the sound of it—he could stop the advance of radical Islam by stopping the construction of the "ground zero mosque." As it happened, Musri didn't manage to reach Feisal, but he did reach his wife. Her husband would amenable to such a meeting, she decided on his behalf. 

"He thought for a very long time how we should organize the press conference," the imam said. "He went for a walk to think it over. Kept changing his mind. 'Shall we both speak? Should we take questions? Maybe only I should speak? Maybe I'd prefer to have a press conference today, and take questions tomorrow.' He was very concerned about this—I let him plan it by himself." The logic of vanity is strict and usually simple.

The story started with farce, seemed destined for tragedy, and ended as farce. The pastor stepped in front of the press with the imam at his side. "He completely stretched our agreement, stretched our words," Musri summarizes. Jones told the press that he had an agreement with Imam Feisal to not burn Korans and Feisal wouldn't build the Islamic center two blocks from ground zero. Musri didn't contradict him directly at the press conference—he waited for things to settle, before clarifying that no clear agreement had been forged. The pastor responded by insinuating that burning Korans was on the table again. He needed 24 hours to reconsider, he said, while looking at the ground in shame.

The disappointed members of the press ran with the "Koran-burning still possible" angle, though everyone recognized that the imam’s real triumph had been to persuade the pastor that his life in the limelight would end in darkness if he ever really did burn books. The pastor's faux ultimatum was pure blackmail—it ran out without a word from Pastor Jones, and the  riots it incurred in Kabul killed one man.

Another pastor looked meeker than ever as he drove away from the compound. His wife wouldn't say whether she was disappointed, but looked like she'd been crying. Pastor Luke seemed to be the only person enjoying himself. "We showed the world how afraid everyone is of radical Islam. Look at all the disaster people predicted if we burn the Koran."

"We did something very important—we don't know yet how important," he concluded. He held his head high and his expression had the pride and certainty of small-town prophets everywhere. Possibly he had a vision—how his own Bible might soon feature an addendum about a small Florida church and their imaginary bonfire.

Leon Dische Becker is a freelance journalist/editor living in New York.