WASHINGTON (CN) – President Obama on Thursday condemned a Florida pastor’s plan to lead a burning of the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, saying the act would be a “recruitment bonanza” for worldwide extremists.
“If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans,” Obama said in a televised interview. Obama said the “stunt” could endanger U.S. troops and trigger violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida,” he said, adding that it could increase the number of individuals “who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or in European cities.”
Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told MSNBC, “We are very, very convinced of what we are doing. It is by no means a stunt. We have thought this out. We have prayed this through. We believe that this type of message is what is right now very, very necessary in America before it’s too late.”
Jones said the event, which he is calling “International Burn a Koran Day,” is a “new way to stand up to confront terrorism.”
In response to Jones’ claim that he is motivated by faith, Obama said, “I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs echoed Obama’s condemnation of the event in a press conference Thursday, calling it a “recruiting bonanza” that “puts the lives of our troops in direct danger.”
“This is a monumentally terrible idea,” Gibbs said. “We’re not at war with a religion.”
Gibbs said the White House was discussing the possibility of calling Jones to discourage him from holding the burning, but he would not name who, if anyone, in the administration would place the call.
Gibbs also poked fun at Jones, hinting that the pastor, who has 30 parishoners, might have organized the event to boost church attendance.
“The fact that there are more people at his press conferences that in his pews on Sunday is illuminating,” Gibbs said. “When you’ve only got 30, I’m guessing it wouldn’t take much.”
Obama and Gibbs joined a host of government and military leaders in condemning the event.
Earlier this week, Gen. David Petraeus warned that the burning would put U.S. troops in danger, saying images of the event would be “in cyberspace forever” and would be used to incite violence and inflame public opinion against the United States.
The FBI also warned that extremists are likely to retaliate if the event takes place.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous, and distressful, disgraceful plan and get the world’s attention. But that is the world we live in right now. It does not in any way represent America, or Americans, or the American government, or American religious or political leadership.”
Jones has not said whether he will retract the plan.
Obama said Jones could be cited for public burning if the event takes place, but added, “that’s the extent of the laws we have available to us.”
Gibbs said FBI officials were crafting a response to the possible burning.
When asked why the event would not be considered a hate crime, Gibbs said, “I will be careful to label something that hasn’t happened yet,” but then qualified his statement, saying, “This is a hateful act.”
“I hope that the entire world understands that there are those of all faiths, of all political beliefs, that strongly condemn the idea of what this individual is trying to do,” Gibbs said. “I hope that that is a message that comes through much louder and much more clearly than the potentially destructive impact that this act could have.”
On Saturday, the nine-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Obama will go to the Pentagon, Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Ground Zero in New York City, and First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush will travel to Pennsylvania to attend memorial services.