Before she left her Miami home to return to the University of Florida this fall, Wajiha Akhtar's parents gave her some unusual advice: stay indoors as much as possible and, whatever happens, don't go near the Koran burners.
"I was fearful," says Akhtar, 24, a graduate student in epidemiology who says she never had any concerns as a Muslim here until recently. "Will we get singled out?"
Far from Ground Zero, where debate over a proposed Islamic center is still roiling, a Gainesville church has aroused anger and tension among Florida's growing Muslim community and caught the world's attention — from international headlines to rallies in Indonesia and India — because of its pistol-toting pastor's plan to ignite a bonfire of Korans on 9/11 to protest what he calls a religion "of the devil."
Fearing violence, some Muslims are leaving town on the Sept. 11 weekend to avoid problems.
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Last week in South Florida, 13 mosque leaders issued a call to the region's Muslims for nonviolence in anticipation of high emotions over the desecration of Islam's holy book. At UF, administrators have said they're afraid the protest at the small Dove World Outreach Center will mar the school's image, while international students and prospective foreign applicants have also expressed concern.
"Things have escalated," says Ismail ibn Ali, president of the university's Islam on Campus student organization, which serves about 600 Muslim students in this city with 1,500 Muslims, a population that's slowly grown over the last 30 years.
The city's two mosques, already packed in recent weeks for the holy Ramadan month, have become the site of frequent discussions between Muslims about how -- or if -- to react to the church, whose pastor also plans to burn copies of the Talmud, a sacred Jewish text.
"We're hoping people will not protest because it might turn into a volatile situation," says Ali, 21, a biochemistry student from Doral. "But people still want to do something to show the positive side of Islam."
The unexpected attention toward a city that's little known beyond its university and football team has caused an identity crisis. Gainesville, a relatively liberal and religiously diverse college town in conservative North Central Florida -- it elected its first openly gay mayor this year and has made strides in interfaith relations -- is trying to protect its image with mixed results.
Last week, 20 Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy gathered on the steps of City Hall to denounce the nondenominational Dove church, whose 50 members regularly parade through the UF campus with T-shirts and signs in red ink declaring "Islam is of the devil."
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