Evangelical leaders try to reach out to the pastor who plans to burn the Koran

Hundreds of people gathered in Kabul on Monday to denounce a U.S. church's plan to burn the Islamic holy book on the anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks.
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 3:07 AM

Geoff Tunnicliffe heads one of the world's largest faith organizations - the World Evangelical Alliance - but on Wednesday morning, when he reached the Florida pastor planning to burn the Koran on Sept. 11, "I felt like a deer in the headlights," he said.

For weeks, Tunnicliffe had remained silent about the intention of the tiny Gainesville church to publicly torch Islam's holy book this Saturday, not wanting to lend legitimacy to the Dove World Outreach Center or its controversial pastor, Terry Jones. But after hearing from Pentecostal leaders around the globe who fear that the scripture-burning could spark sectarian violence, he decided he needed to appeal to Jones as a fellow Christian.

Tunnicliffe is among the religious leaders who have tried to reach out to Jones in recent days and persuade him to abandon his plan, which has been condemned by everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Gen. David H. Petraeus to conservative commentator Glenn Beck to actress Angelina Jolie. Even Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham and an outspoken critic of Islam, tried twice without success to reach Jones on Wednesday to express his disapproval of defacing or destroying the sacred texts or writings of other religions, a spokesman said.

Jones did not return telephone calls Wednesday seeking comment.

Tunnicliffe described himself as "pleading" during a 10-minute cellphone conversation with the man whose plan has sparked angry protests in Jakarta and Kabul, a plan that some fear could put the lives of U.S. troops in Muslim countries at risk.

"I tried to talk about the impact this would have on his own stated goals of taking the Gospel to the world," said Tunnicliffe, whose group represents hundreds of millions of evangelicals, including those in Muslim countries.

He told Jones that Christian leaders and missionaries around the world were opposed to the burning, and asked, "What are you hearing from God that these people aren't hearing?" He asked how Jones would feel if the event led to the death of a pastor or the destruction of a church in another part of the world.

Jones listened but remained noncommittal, Tunnicliffe said. "He said they might not change their minds, but that they were praying about it."

At the end of the phone call, Tunnicliffe said, he prayed for Jones.

"Here's the reality: That video will never go away," he said. "It will be so detrimental to our work with religious liberty around the world. Everywhere I go around the world, I will have to address this for years to come."

He and others described their lobbying efforts this week as delicate and strange. Jones doesn't belong to a religious denomination and doesn't appear to know fellow pastors in his town.

Some religious leaders said they fear that Jones won't listen to strangers, or they are reluctant to fuel something that they hope will go away. Others said the fact that evangelical leaders aren't taking more action reflects a distant and sometimes tense relationship with Muslims and the fact that many evangelicals are skeptical of Islam.

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