Liberty U. removing Ergun Caner as seminary dean over contradictory statements

By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LYNCHBURG -- At an evangelical institution such as Liberty University, personal testimonies are a kind of sacred currency; how Jesus saved you from damnation often defines you as a person. Nobody had a story quite as dramatic as that of Ergun Caner, dean of Liberty's seminary.

As he told it to church audiences across the country, Caner was entrenched in Muslim extremism when he moved to the United States from Turkey as a teenager and found Jesus. He wrote books and, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, developed a reputation for his impassioned speeches on Muslim radicalism to largely evangelical audiences. Liberty founder Jerry Falwell Sr. chose Caner -- a bold man with a big shaved head, double-barrel chest and the personality to match -- in 2005 to be the face of his seminary. Under Caner, the seminary tripled its enrollment.

But now, few want to talk about Caner. Mention his name, and seminary staff turn cold. University leaders politely shake their heads and show you the door. Even students hesitate to talk.

"I'd rather not add any fuel to the fire," one student said.

The biography of Caner, 43, has become shrouded in doubt after apparent exaggerations were brought to light by an unusual alliance of Muslim and Christian bloggers. They have pored through his sermons, books, speeches and court documents, finding contradictions in his narrative. His expertise on Islam and his claim to having been raised as a radical Sunni Muslim in Turkey have been questioned.

Wednesday is Caner's last day as dean; Liberty announced he was being removed because of "factual statements that are self-contradictory." Although he will no longer be dean, Caner will continue as a professor. Critics say the school's explanation falls short.

"They haven't come clean and explained what exactly they investigated and found," said James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries in Phoenix, who dug into Caner's past. "One can only offer forgiveness if there's repentance, and they've basically said nothing with their statement."

Student opinion is divided. Some have created Facebook groups in Caner's defense. Others have expressed frustration with the university's carefully worded statements. Many describe the scandal in spiritual terms of truth, integrity, forgiveness and redemption.

Student Chris Gleason, 28, has decided to transfer to another seminary in part because of the controversy over Caner.

But despite feeling betrayed by Caner, Gleason said he's relieved the university didn't fire him. "There needs to be room for grace," he said.

When Caner was appointed seminary dean five years ago, his selection was seen as daring. Although not a prominent theologian, his charisma and dramatic conversion story made him an overnight star. He was booked years in advance on a circuit of evangelical churches and schools, and his books sold well after the Sept. 11 attacks as many evangelicals sought to learn more about Muslims.

White came across Caner's name last year when he read that the dean said he had debated dozens of religious scholars, including Shabir Ally, president of the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre International in Toronto. White had debated Ally in the past and sent him an e-mail. Never met Caner before, Ally replied.

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