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

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.

"People don't speak out the way they should because they don't have personal relationships," said Richard Cizik, a former longtime lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the U.S. branch of the World Evangelical Alliance. He noted that an NAE poll of evangelical leaders in 2008 found none who said they had a good friend who was Muslim.

Nevertheless, NAE President Leith Anderson issued a statement Wednesday asking Muslims not to judge "all Christians by the behavior of one extremist. One person with 30 silent followers does not speak for 300 million Americans who will never burn a Koran."

Christian leaders from other denominations echoed those sentiments Wednesday, saying there was no support in their communities for Jones. The question was how to reach the former hotel manager who sells furniture on eBay to make extra money.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he decided not to approach Jones because he believes that the pastor would disapprove of Land's advocacy for the rights of religious minorities and his general engagement with pluralism.

"If I know my boy, he thinks we're apostate liberals anyway," Land said. "My guess is my call would be counterproductive. My calling him would just encourage him to do it."

City commissioners and the mayor of Gainesville have called Jones, as have local clergy, including the Rev. Dan Johnson of the 4,000-member Trinity United Methodist Church, the closest house of worship to the Dove Center. Johnson tried several times to make appointments with Jones before the Dove pastor called Johnson "yellow-bellied" in a local paper, said Troy Holloway, Trinity's director of stewardship development.

Tunnicliffe said he offered to come to Florida on Friday to speak with Jones's church and was planning to deliver a letter to the congregation and run an advertisement in the Gainesville newspaper.

Asked if evangelical leaders - including himself- had delayed trying to stop the Koran-burning because many Christians feel anxious about the spread of Islam, he said he didn't believe that was the case.

"They may have some concerns, but you'd only find the very fringe that would have any support for this, even among the most conservative," Tunnicliffe said. "I think there would be a strong consensus that this kind of approach is absolutely not acceptable and not biblical."

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