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Phelps-Roper annoyed by Fla. church's Quran plans

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, Sep. 9, 2010, at 12:02 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Sep. 9, 2010, at 6:17 a.m.

One of those angry at a Florida preacher's plans to mark Sept. 11 by setting fire to copies of the Quran is Shirley Phelps-Roper, a leader of the Westboro Baptist Church.

While she joins Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus, the White House, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and many more, Phelps-Roper, Fred Phelps' lawyer daughter, is hardly a voice for religious tolerance.

Her irritation Wednesday was not that the Rev. Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center's planned bonfire would offend Muslims worldwide and probably increase the danger to American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's that in 2008 she and her father's Topeka flock set fire to a Quran in plain view on a Washington, D.C., street and nobody seemed to care.

"We did it a long time before this guy," Phelps-Roper said by telephone from a street corner in downtown Chicago, scene of the latest Westboro picket — against Jews this time, not gays.

The difference could be that in 2008 many news media outlets had decided to ignore the group's routine of spewing hatred at funerals of fallen American soldiers.

So when Fred Phelps went online and invited people to attend the burning, most stayed away.

Because of the heightened media attention on the Florida demonstration, Christian Petersen of Blue Springs, a Marine veteran who helped train Iraqi security forces in 2009, speculated some Islamic extremists will seek "an eye for an eye" and retaliate. But U.S. troops won't likely change their activities.

"If an environment is hostile, one more piece of wood on the bonfire isn't going to make a difference," Petersen said.

"It's just like here in the United States. We watch the news and tend to generalize an entire culture based on the very worst elements," he said. But the Muslims he came to know "understood the difference between people in our country who are extreme in their views and those of us over there trying to help them."

In any case, Jones and his small Florida church are catching plenty of criticism now.

The Community of Christ, whose headquarters are in Independence, Mo., released a statement Wednesday saying, "Such attitudes, behaviors and actions reflect hatred rather than Christ's example of love, divide rather than break down walls that separate people and ignore Christ's call for his disciples to be peacemakers."

Also, the national Council on American-Islamic Relations will hold a news conference today in Washington to announce it will provide 200,000 copies of the Quran to replace the 200 expected to be burned by Jones' church.

While most Americans likely disapprove of Jones' planned burning, they hail free speech as a founding principle and benchmark of democracy.

Even when they can't stand the speaker.

"A lot of people might wonder why the First Amendment protects this pastor at all," said Douglas Linder, a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "The First Amendment is there to protect speech people detest. You don't need a constitutional provision to protect popular speech."

The First Amendment even protects burning the flag as "symbolic speech," the Supreme Court has ruled.

The government can seek to block activities and words intended to incite unlawful conduct or imminent violence, which might apply if Jones' congregation marched into a Muslim community to burn Qurans, Linder said.

"I get the free speech part," Gary Morsch, founder of Heart to Heart International, a global relief organization based in Olathe, said Wednesday.

"On the other hand — what is this guy (Jones) thinking? To do something like this that is so inflammatory.

"But I'm confident that good people will reject what he's trying to do and say."

Ahmed El-Sherif of Leawood hopes the same. For years, he has visited churches and organizations in the Kansas City area to talk about Islam. In the mid-1990s, he helped organize a fundraiser for Southern churches burned by arsonists.

He thinks Jones is actually defeating his own purpose.

"What he's doing will make people more curious and want to read it," El-Sherif said. "The Quran will not disappear.

"I have tremendous faith in the American people. People are not stupid. American people are fair-minded," he said.

"At the end of the day, we all want the same things — to honor our creator, raise our children and live in peace."

In Topeka, the Rev. Lisa Schwartz plans to join many Christian church leaders nationwide by including a Quran reading during Sunday services. "It's just to affirm that the Quran is a positive source of religious wisdom, like many works of scripture," said Schwartz of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

In Kansas City, Kan., the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Molly T. Marshall, wrote in her Wednesday blog that the activities in Gainesville by "a sectarian church... named after a symbol of peace" could alienate Islam from Christianity "in irreparable ways."

Marshall said she was unaware that Phelps' supporters had burned the Quran nearly two years ago. "I don't want to raise (Fred Phelps') profile by even mentioning his name in my blog," she said.

Perhaps the world media should do the same with Jones, Marshall suggested.

Jones has referred to Islam as the "devil's religion" and thinks it's time for Americans to fight back against behaviors of radical Islam.

His church blog attempted Wednesday to pre-empt any blame for what may happen after the burning:

"Let's just make one thing clear. A small church, in a small town, down a back road, burning copies of its own books, on its own property, is not responsible for the violent actions anyone may take in retaliation to our protest."

Shirley Phelps-Roper says any talk of fallout is moot, because she thinks Jones will fold under the building pressure.

"They'll browbeat him and he'll back down at the last minute," she said.

"He's an apologist. He doesn't serve God."

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