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 there for several hours.
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 on Thursday evening.
He poured scorn on the official reason for the denial, saying it defied logic.
"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 Thursday night 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 indicated that border officials told him they needed more documentation in order to allow him to enter.
The Canada Border Services Agency declined to discuss Jones' case, saying it was against their policy to share details of any individual 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 that 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 bring his message to Canadian soil.
"Yeah, Canada for standing up to hate & racism," read one Twitter post.
"I would've loved to check out the debate! But I'm glad Terry Jones isn't being let in," wrote another.
Others took a more nuanced position, arguing 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. "People have to be responsible for their own actions, but I definitely disagree with what he says and does."
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 Mohammad 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, U.S.-based Muslim author Masud Ansari, and Sikh community leader Bikram Lamba. The event was also to feature a memorial to Cpl. Christopher Speer, a U.S. a medic killed in Afghanistan by Canadian war criminal Omar Khadr.
Einstoss said the event will go ahead as planned, but lamented Jones' absence from the proceedings. Interference from border officials, he said, has quashed an opportunity for a meaningful dialog on free speech.
"That's the government's choice, that's what they wanted," Einstoss said. "We could have had a nice civil evening, but that's their decision."
Jones is not the first public figure to be barred from the country because of his controversial views.
British member of parliament George Galloway, an outspoken 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 on him because of Galloway's alleged financial support to the Palestinian group Hamas, which the federal government considers a terrorist organization.
Galloway has said that Kenney's allegations caused him "18 months of hell'' and threatened his personal security. He lost his parliamentary seat in the 2010 election, only to be returned to office in a byelection earlier this year.
He has since sued the minister for $1.5 million.
Cases like Galloway's and Jones' seem poised to become more prevalent in the wake of a new immigration bill tabled in the House of Commons earlier this week.
Kenney's proposed legislation would give the government the right to turn people back from the border for public policy reasons, as well as the power to crack down on permanent residents and visitors for serious criminality.