By Margaret Talev and Nancy A. Youssef
WASHINGTON -- Under tremendous pressure from U.S. officials all the way up to President Barack Obama, a Florida pastor on Thursday called off a Quran burning he'd scheduled for Saturday - the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - that had drawn international condemnation and posed a potential threat to national security.
The Rev. Terry Jones announced the change of plans to a media circus outside his Dove Outreach World Center in Gainesville shortly after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the pastor to make a direct appeal. Gates told Jones that burning Qurans would inflame Muslim sentiment and endanger U.S. troops abroad.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that Gates had weighed concerns that making such a call could encourage copycats who want attention, but felt that "if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform, that call was worth placing."
Gates' call was a highly unusual outreach to a civilian that showed how concerned the Obama administration had become about the potential ramifications of such an insult to Islam.
It also reflected the triumph of national security concerns over freedom of expression. Only weeks earlier, Obama spoke out to protect plans for an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York, arguing that the nation's First Amendment principles were paramount to the sensitivities of Sept. 11 victims' families. Jones' right to burn a Quran as a matter of free expression didn't get the same backing.
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