US & Canada

Media swamp Florida church at centre of Koran row

Pastor Terry Jones outside Dove World Outreach Center, Gainesville, Fla
Reporters have grown used to Pastor Jones' sartorial variety

Pastor Terry Jones shares a name with one of the Monty Python troupe, and the scene outside his Gainesville church is undoubtedly a circus.

In the searing Florida heat I counted at least 20 television satellite trucks (yes, including one used by the BBC); plus assorted technicians, camera crews and glistening correspondents (including me).

On the main road, a small group of banner-waving protesters denounced the pastor's views on everything from Islam to abortion to homosexuality. Inside, hardier members of Mr Jones' tiny flock strode around, with pistols hanging from high-waisted trousers.

The man himself was big of voice and moustache, but strikingly short on clarity of message - not to mention understanding of the Muslim religion which he considers the "devil's work."

We did, however, get a fuller understanding of Terry Jones' wardrobe. His increasingly frequent news conferences took place against various hues of shirt and tie. On Thursday, Pastor Jones appeared to have completely changed clothes between two press conferences, barely an hour apart.

Imam muddle

Armed member of Dove World Outreach Center moves camera operator away from the church
Not all church members have welcomed the media frenzy

And then there were the self-styled peacemakers.

First, the local imam who brought the offer of a quid pro quo, in which the Korans would be reprieved in return for the relocation of a proposed Islamic centre near Ground Zero. A "deal" which rapidly unravelled, when it became clear that Imam Muhammad Musri had no authority to offer it. Hopelessly befuddled, Pastor Jones appeared not to know his imams from his Iman - at one stage suggesting he had struck a deal with David Bowie's wife.

Next up to the plate was Dr KA Paul, a Christian evangelist who previously defended the honour of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader currently on trial for crimes against humanity.

With no deficiency in self-assurance, Dr Paul issued an ultimatum to the Manhattan site developers - giving them two hours to formalise a meeting with Terry Jones. The "or else" was never made clear; and predictably, there was no outreach from New York.

Carpentry

Supporter of Pastor Terry Jones outside his church in Gainesville, Fla
The tiny Florida church has been surrounded by news crews

As the sun finally eased, I took a walk around the site of the corrugated-iron church, which bears a striking resemblance to an exhaust factory just up the road. To one side was a children's climbing frame and paddling pool, and a basketball hoop under trees draped with Spanish moss. At the foot of the Church's locked, mirrored doors lay three dozen red roses, under a notice stating "expect a miracle."

When I wandered towards an out-building, a wispy-moustached youth barred my way, explaining that this was a "work area." Stacks of carefully-wrapped chairs and tables behind him seemed consistent with reports of Pastor Jones' sideline furniture business. Carpentry may be the only thing he has in common with Jesus.

With the threat of lighted match meeting holy book apparently receding, the Gainesville constabulary seemed to relax, and by day's-end there were no uniformed police officers on view. On Northwest 37th Street a lone protestor paraded a simple banner proclaiming "Shame on you" - drawing supportive toots from passing motorists.

Mirror of publicity

"Pastor Jones just wanted 15 minutes of celebrity whoredom," explained the protestor, aptly named Paula Pope. "He's a short-sighted, idiotic, fanatical narcissist."

Her remarks left me uneasy. Could this have been avoided, had we in the media denied the narcissistic Jones the mirror of publicity? Possibly - although I would argue it was the warnings from generals and politicians which transformed the Dove Outreach Center from obscurity into headline news. Warnings which the Obama administration clearly felt had to be made.

As I write, the battalion of satellite trucks is thinning, and Gainesville is turning its thoughts to this campus town's true religion - college football - ahead of a fiercely-anticipated local derby. Few here will mourn the fading of Terry Jones from the headlines.

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