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Pakistan reaction to Quran-burning plan muted, so far

By Sohel Uddin, NBC News Producer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – In a country where flag and effigy burning is a popular retort to insults against Islam and certain Western foreign policies, the reaction to Rev. Terry Jones’ plan to hold an “International Burn a Quran Day” on Sept.11 so far has been relatively tame here.

Although Jones announced a month ago that his Gainesville, Fla., church would desecrate Islam’s holy book, reactions to the plan only started to be seen in Pakistan on Thursday.

The government urged restraint Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was diplomatic as he told reporters in Belgium Thursday, “This gentleman is not in line with the general thinking of the American people … I don't know what he intends to do, but he is not serving anyone.” Qureshi added, “What we have been promoting was interfaith dialogue, interfaith harmony, and this is a complete sort of negation of that … I hope better sense prevails and this event does not take place."

Unfortunately, diplomacy did not prevail on every street in Pakistan. Sentiments were harsh as about 200 people set an American flag on fire in Multan, a city of 4.5 million, about 350 miles from Islamabad. "DEATH TO AMERICA" placards were accompanied by chants of "Down with American dogs." The crowds threatened to take revenge on the proposed Quran-burning insult.

Lawyer Qamar Intizar Mohammad told Reuters, "If this happens in Florida on Sept. 11, there will be a reaction against the church across the world. Then a new war will begin between Muslims and Christians."

However, in Karachi, a more cosmopolitan city of about 18 million, there was a sense of solidarity between Christians and Muslims as they took to the streets together to protest.

Anti-U.S. slogans were chanted as protesters stepped on cartoons of the pastor, but Christians could also be heard saying, “Down with U.S. plan To desecrate Koran.” Their placards read, “WE DEMAND U.S GOVERNMENT TO ARREST THIS RELIGIOUS TERRORIST AND PUNISH.”

The Christian protesters’ condemnation appeared to be just as strong as the Muslim protesters’. The Bishop of Karachi Sadiq Daniel, who was participating in the march, told Reuters, “It is certainly very bad to desecrate any religious book and to hurt someone's religious and spiritual sentiments. I think the one who carries out such things is a mentally sick person.”

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Bracing for the worst
Back in the U.S., President Barack Obama expressed fears during an ABC interview Thursday that Jones plan could result in “serious violence in places like Pakistan.”

In fact, anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan is quite significant. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that almost six out of 10 Pakistanis regarded America as an enemy and only one in 10 called it a partner.

The poll results demonstrate the uphill struggle the U.S. is having in gaining the Pakistani people’s trust. If the Florida pastor does go ahead with his proposed event, the setback to Pakistani perceptions of America could be immeasurable.

Over the past few days, I have been asking locals and journalists why there hadn’t been any significant reactions to “Burn a Quran Day.”

A few told me that it was probably because people hadn’t really heard about it yet. But many others said, “Just wait and see what people will do here if he goes ahead with it…”