President Barack Obama has made a plea for unity and tolerance as tensions run high over a pastor's threat to burn copies of the Koran if plans to build a Muslim cultural centre near New York's Ground Zero are not dropped.
REUTERS - President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for religious tolerance on Friday, saying the United States is not at war with Islam, as he sought to quell signs of anti-Muslim sentiment at home that have raised tensions overseas.
On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama appealed to Americans for unity as passions simmered over a previously obscure Florida Christian pastor's threat to burn copies of the Koran and plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers.
The twin controversies have threatened to undermine Obama's efforts to repair U.S. ties with the Muslim world, which he formally launched in a Cairo speech last year.
"We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other," Obama told a news conference. "And I will do everything that I can as long as I'm president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God. And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation."
Obama also said that he "relies heavily on my Christian faith." Recent opinion polls have shown many Americans falsely believe Obama is a Muslim.
"We've got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country," Obama said.
"They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our co-workers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow
offensive, what are we saying to them?"
The latest religious divisiveness stemmed from a threat by Pastor Terry Jones of the tiny, little-known Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, to burn Korans on Saturday, which sparked anger and protests in Muslim nations.
Jones has backed off from his plan, saying it was suspended but not completing ruling it out.
'Inflame the passions'
"There is no doubt that when someone goes out of their way to be provocative in ways that we know can inflame the passions of over a billion Muslims around the world at a time when we've got our troops in a lot of Muslim countries, that's a problem," Obama said.
Thousands of people took to the streets across Afghanistan on Friday, some threatening to attack U.S. bases. One protester was shot dead and several were wounded outside a German-run NATO base in northeast Afghanistan. Demonstrations later spread to the capital, Kabul, and at least four other provinces.
Expressing hope Jones would refrain from carrying out his threat, Obama said that burning Korans would violate American values, cause "profound damage" to the United States worldwide and endanger U.S. troops in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
He said it would also be a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, the authors of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
"We are not at war against Islam," Obama said. "We're at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts."
Offering rare praise to former President George W. Bush, Obama said he admired how his predecessor made clear in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that "we were at war with terrorists and murderers who had perverted Islam."
Obama has reached out to the Muslim world seeking to repair strains over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the internationally condemned U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Obama acknowledged on Friday he had fallen short on his campaign promise to close the detention center for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo but said he would keep up efforts to find ways to transfer the remaining suspects held there.
"It's not for lack of trying. It's because the politics of it are difficult," Obama said.
Obama also said capturing or killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains a high priority as the U.S. military continues fighting in Afghanistan.
"It doesn't solve all our problems but it remains a high priority to this administration," Obama said in response to a question on whether it was still a top U.S. goal.
As the United States has "ramped up the pressure" on al Qaeda, "what's happened is bin Laden has gone deep underground," Obama said. The consequence, he said, is bin Laden and others "may have been holed up in ways that have made it harder for them to operate."
Date created : 2010-09-10