Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center speaks at a news conference in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010. Jones said that he is going forward with a plan to burn copies of the Quran at his church on Saturday, Sept. 11. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
The leader of a tiny Florida church says he won't follow through on a plan to burn copies of Islam's holy text if he's able to meet Saturday with the organizers behind a mosque planned near ground zero in New York.
Speaking to NBC's "Today'' show, the Rev. Terry Jones said if he meets with the imam in New York, he won't burn the Quran. It wasn't clear if he meant the burning would be halted indefinitely or just for Saturday.
Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, told CBS' "The Early Show'' he had a commitment for Jones and himself to meet in New York with imam Feisal Rauf there.
But Rauf said Friday that he has no plans to meet with a Florida pastor who has threatened to burn copies of the Quran.
"I am prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace," Rauf said in a prepared statement. "We have no such meeting planned at this time. Our plans for the community center have not changed. With the solemn day of September 11 upon us, I encourage everyone to take time for prayer and reflection."
U.S. political leaders and Muslims around the world have been outraged by news of Jones' plans to burn Qurans on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
President Barack Obama told a White House news conference today that Sept. 11 would be "an excellent time" for the country to reflect on the fact that there are millions of Muslims who are American citizens, that they also are fighting in U.S. uniforms in Afghanistan, and "we don't differentiate between 'them' and 'us.' It's just 'us.'"
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.
He said a plan by Terry Jones, the pastor of a small, independent church in Gainesville, Fla., to mark 9/11 by burning copies of the Quran must be taken seriously because it could cause "profound damage" to U.S. troops and interests around the world.
"You don't play games with that," Obama said, adding that as commander in chief he had an obligation to respond.
Obama said he hopes Jones "prays on it and refrains from doing it," referring to the pastor as "the individual down in Florida."
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 Thursday night said he relented when Musri assured him that the New York mosque will be moved.
Hours later, after Musri and the leader of the New York mosque denied such an agreement, Jones said Musri "clearly, clearly lied to us."
"Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision," Jones said. "So as of right now, we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it."
Jones did not say whether the Quran burning could still be held Saturday, but he said he expected Musri to keep his word and expected "the imam in New York to back up one of his own men."
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 afternoon 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."
Musri did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Thursday night after Jones accused him of lying.
In New York, the leader of the Islamic center project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, issued a statement saying he was glad Jones had decided not to burn the Quran but that he had spoken to neither the pastor nor Musri.
"We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we going to barter," Rauf said. "We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony."
Jones' decision to call off the Quran burning 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 among Muslims. In Afghanistan, hundreds of Afghans burned an American flag and chanted "Death to the Christians" to protest the planned Quran burning.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.