Home secretary Theresa May is under intense pressure to ban controversial anti-Muslim preacher Terry Jones from Britain after far-right activists said he had agreed to address them at a demonstration about "the evils of Islam".
The English Defence League (EDL) said it was "proud to announce" that the US pastor, who caused outrage with plans to burn the Qur'an on this year's anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, would be attending the event in Luton in early February. Jones confirmed that he would be arriving in the UK. The pastor's website said he intended to visit the EDL's "biggest demonstration to date" in February. The website stated: "During the protest, Dr Terry Jones will speak against the evils and destructiveness of Islam in support of the continued fight against the Islamification of England and Europe."
President Barack Obama warned in September that Jones's planned Qur'an burnings would be a "recruitment bonanza" for al-Qaida and the US state department said it would put the country's citizens at risk across the world.
Tonight the British anti-extremist campaign, Hope Not Hate, launched its own petition urging May to ban Jones from Britain, while MPs demanded immediate action from the home secretary. Hope Not Hate's campaign co-ordinator, Nick Lowles, said: "Pastor Jones's presence in Luton will be incendiary and highly dangerous. He will attract and encourage thousands of English Defence League supporters to take to the streets of Luton.
"Like the EDL, Pastor Jones indiscriminately targets all Muslims and their actions can only lead to increased tensions and racism in our communities. His appearance will rightly cause concern and fear among Muslims across the country."
Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, said he would table an urgent parliamentary motion tomorrow demanding that the pastor be banned from coming into the country.
"We have seen how Pastor Jones, with a very small congregation in Florida, created a firestorm by urging the Qur'an to be burned," Cruddas said. "We should not allow racial hatred to be whipped up in this manner in our country."
The EDL announced Jones's planned visit on its Facebook site today, saying he would attend "our biggest demo to date" and describing it as "the big one". There are fears that copies of the Qur'an could be burned by extremists.
The last time the EDL marched in Luton, 250 of their supporters went on the rampage through an Asian area of the town. Shop windows were smashed, cars overturned and a number of people were attacked. Thirty-five people were arrested as a result of the violence.
Eleven people were arrested yesterday as 500 EDL supporters marched in Peterborough.
"The EDL march in February has the potential to be far worse," Lowles said. "Only extremists will benefit from his visit and, as we know, extremism breeds hatred and hatred breeds violence. Pastor Jones, a preacher of hate, must be stopped from entering the UK."
The home secretary has the power to exclude or deport an individual if she thinks their presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens. She can also do so if she believes their views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime.
May has been keen to show that she is tough on extremism. Five weeks after the coalition government came into power, she banned a radical preacher who claimed that "every Muslim should be a terrorist" from entering Britain. Zakir Naik had been due to give a series of lectures at Wembley Arena and in Sheffield in June.
However, visitors from other countries cannot be banned just for having opinions that other people would find offensive. In the past, May has said the powers can only be used in "very serious" cases. She has already acted against the EDL, banning a march in Leicester in November.
News of Jones's planned visit comes as the head of the police intelligence unit on domestic extremism reveals that the EDL and related splinter groups have become his biggest concern.
Adrian Tudway, the national co-ordinator for domestic extremism, told the Observer: "We look at the extreme right and left, but currently our biggest single area of business are the various groups which call themselves defence leagues. These defence leagues can be found across England."
The unit is monitoring a "number of individuals" connected to extreme rightwing groups, details of which are disseminated to local police forces.
At the height of the controversy over Jones's threat to burn the Qur'an, effigies of the pastor were burned in Afghanistan and there was widespread condemnation across the Muslim world.
Jones is a Pentecostalist who bases his theology on the literal text of the Bible.
He runs the Florida-based Dove World Outreach Centre, which objects to Islam because it "teaches that Jesus is not the son of God, therefore taking away the saving power of Jesus and leading people straight to Hell".