TORONTO -- An anti-Muslim American pastor who earned an international reputation after burning copies of the Islamic holy text has been denied entry into Canada hours before he was to speak at a free-speech rally in Toronto, organizers said Thursday.
Allan Einstoss said Terry Jones was turned back at the Michigan-Ontario border after being held for several hours. Jones was told he was barred from entering the country when officials could not verify whether he had a criminal record in the U.S., he said.
Einstoss decried the decision to keep Jones from attending a multifaith debate on freedom of speech, which was slated to take place in front of the Ontario legislature Thursday evening.
"In terms of checking for criminal records, I would make the assumption that's what they do on a daily basis," Einstoss said in a telephone interview.
Jones issued a statement expressing "shock" at being refused entry.
"We consider this to be a grievous blow to freedom of speech. We hope that this is a lesson for the Canadians and the Americans for us to stand up, unite together, and protect our freedom of speech," the statement said.
According to Jones's statement, the rental car he was travelling in was thoroughly searched and protest placards were confiscated.
The statement said Jones and a travelling companion were refused entry based on an arrest in Michigan last year for refusing to pay a peace bond as well as a fine by the German government for using the title Doctor based on an honorary doctorate he received from a California university in 1993. Jones said he appealed both disputes and won but the statement said border officials told him they needed more documentation in order to allow him to enter.
The Canada Border Services Agency declined to discuss the case, saying it's against policy to share details of any individual's efforts to enter the country.
"Admissibility of all travellers seeking to enter Canada is considered on a case-by-case basis based on the specific facts presented by the applicant at the time of entry," the agency said in a statement.
Word that Jones had been turned back at the border spread rapidly through social media, drawing a slew of wide-ranging reactions. Some touted the decision as an attack on freedom of expression, while others celebrated the fact a man who commemorated the ninth anniversary of 9/11 by burning copies of the Qur'an at his church in Gainesville, Fla., would not have the opportunity to preach his message in Canada. Others argued his hateful views of Muslims are not reason enough to bar him from the country.
Amin Elshorbagy, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said Jones ought to have been allowed to air his views regardless of how extreme they may be. "Personally I'm not really in favour of blocking or banning anybody," he said.
Jones was scheduled to be the primary attraction at a multifaith debate on the film Innocence of Muslims, whose negative portrayal of the Islamic prophet Muhammad has incited violent riots around the world. One skirmish claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, along with three members of his staff.
Jones was slated to square off against Toronto imam Steve Rockwell, Muslim author Masud Ansari and Sikh leader Bikram Lamba.
Einstoss said the event would go ahead, but lamented Jones's absence. Interference from border officials, he said, quashed an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue on free speech.
Jones is not the first public figure to be barred from the country because of his views. British MP George Galloway, a supporter of the Palestinian people, was planning to visit Canada to make a series of speeches about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in March 2009.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney pulled the welcome mat because of Galloway's alleged financial support of Hamas, which the federal government considers a terrorist organization.
A new bill would give the government the right to turn people back from the border for public-policy reasons.
-- The Canadian Press