WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama warned on Thursday that a Florida pastor's plan to burn copies of the Koran is being used as an al Qaeda recruitment tool and he urged the minister to reconsider the decision.
"This is a recruitment bonanza for al Qaeda," Obama said in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America" program. "You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities."
Terry Jones, the leader of a Protestant church of about 30 members in Gainesville, Florida, is planning to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on Saturday on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
His threat comes at a time of rising tensions surrounding the anniversary, which this year coincides closely with the Islamic eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends the fasting month of Ramadan, and a heated debate over construction of an Islamic community center and mosque near the attack site in Manhattan.
Jones, who leads the Dove World Outreach Center, has said he views Koran-burning as a way of confronting Islamist terrorism but his plans have been widely condemned by U.S. religious, political and military leaders, who say it is jeopardizing the security of U.S. military personnel abroad.
"I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan," Obama said of Jones on "Good Morning America." "We're already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat that he's making."
Obama said Jones' plans violated U.S. principles of religious tolerance.
"I just hope he understands that what he is proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans, that this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance," Obama said.
"He says he's someone who is motivated by his faith ... I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he's engaging in," Obama said.
The U.S. leader said the situation was frustrating but there was little that could be done according to the law to confront the minister, other than citing him under local measures against public burning.
"My understanding is that he can be cited for public burning," Obama said. "But that's the extent of the laws that we have available to us."
Reporting by David Alexander and Matt Spetalnick; editing by Bill Trott