The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warned Tuesday that a Gainesville, Fla., church's threat to burn copies of the Muslim holy book could endanger U.S. troops in the country and Americans worldwide.
The comments from Gen. David Petraeus followed a protest Monday by hundreds of Afghans over the plans by Dove World Outreach Center -- a small, evangelical Christian church that espouses anti-Islam philosophy -- to burn copies of the Quran on church grounds to mark the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that provoked the Afghan war.
"Images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan -- and around the world -- to inflame public opinion and incite violence," Petraeus said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Terry Jones, pastor of of the church, released a statement saying, "We are sure that his concerns are legitimate," but said they were going ahead with plans to burn Qurans.
"We must send a clear message to the radical element of Islam. We will no longer be controlled and dominated by their fears and threats," Jones said.
Video:Images:Gainesville Church Sparks International Controversy
The city of Gainesville has denied the church a burn permit for the book burning, but the church has said that will not stop them.
The Gainesville Sun reported that a handmade billboard advertising "International Burn a Koran Day" and Dove World's website was erected on church property on Sunday -- the same day many local Muslims were celebrating Ramadan at a nearby mosque and Islamic center on Southwest 13th Street.
Muslims consider the Quran to be the word of God and insist it be treated with the utmost respect, along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect to the Quran is deeply offensive.
In 2005, 15 people died and scores were wounded in riots in Afghanistan sparked by a story in Newsweek magazine alleging interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay placed copies of the Quran in washrooms and flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk. Newsweek later retracted the story.
At Monday's protest, several hundred Afghans rallied outside a Kabul mosque, burning American flags and an effigy of Dove World's pastor and chanting "death to America." Members of the crowd briefly pelted a passing U.S. military convoy with stones, but were ordered to stop by rally organizers.
Two days earlier, thousands of Indonesian Muslims rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and in five other cities to protest the church's plans.
Petraeus warned images of burning Qurans could be used to incite anti-American sentiment similar to the pictures of prisoner abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
"I am very concerned by the potential repercussions of the possible (Quran) burning. Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul yesterday," Petraeus said in his message. "Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also issued a statement condemning the church's plans, saying Washington was "deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups."
Dove World Outreach Center, which made headlines last year after distributing T-shirts that said "Islam is of the Devil," has been denied a permit to set a bonfire but has vowed to proceed with the burning. The congregation's website estimates it has about 50 members, but the church has leveraged the Internet with a Facebook page and blog devoted to its Quran-burning plans.
The American's death brings to at least six the number of U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan this month, along with at least four other non-American members of the international coalition.
Engagements with insurgents are rising along with the addition of another 30,000 U.S. troops, bringing the total number of international forces in the country to more than 140,000.
At least 322 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, exceeding the previous annual record of 304 for all of 2009, according to an AP count.
Petraeus is asking for 2,000 more soldiers for the international force, NATO officials said Monday. It was unclear how many would be Americans.