Koran burning and Ground Zero: World Evangelicals respond

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President Obama weighed-in to the growing controversy surrounding a Florida pastor who has said he will burn copies of the Koran this Saturday. President Obama said that notion goes against American ideals.

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Geoff Tunnicliffe
CEO and Secretary General, World Evangelical Alliance
Friday, September 10, 2010; 9:00 AM

The pastor of a small Florida church who had planned to burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks said Thursday that he would cancel the event - at least for now - hours after President Obama condemned it as a "recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda" and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates telephoned the minister as a worldwide fury grew.

Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO and secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, was online Friday, Sept. 10, at 9 a.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in the controversy.

In a statement released on their Web site, Tunnicliffe said, "The WEA, on behalf of its member churches, Christian organizations and bodies, strongly condemns the Dove World Outreach Center's plans to burn copies of the Qur'an. Such an act represents a grave misunderstanding of our role as Christians in building partnership and peace with our neighbors, may they be Muslims or adherents of other religions."

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Geoff Tunnicliffe: Good morning, This is Geoff Tunnicliffe, the CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance. And like much of the world we've been watching very carefully the story that's been developing out of Florida with the small congregation that wants to burn the Koran. As a global Christian organization representing one of the largest parts of the Christian church we have had hundreds of communications and e-mails from around the world expressing deep concern over the implications of what's happening in Florida.

We continue to seek to respond to dissuade the pastor and his congregation from taking this specific action for two reasons: One and primary, is because we believe it does not reflect our Christian values within the church, and secondly, because of the potentiality of violence by radicals around the world.

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Baltimore, Md.: How do evangelicals feel about all this controversy with the Koran and Ground Zero on the anniversary of 9/11? Do you think Rev. Jones is a splinter group? Does the Evangelical Alliance recognize his Dove World Outreach Center?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: One is, a significant degree of embarrassment. Secondly, there's unequivocal rejection of what this congregation is doing. I would also say this church is not a member of our alliance nationally or globally. It's not a member of any recognized denomination. It is very much a fringe, independent church. And while people have described it as evangelical or even Pentecostal we would not recognize even if it applied to become a member of our organization; we would not accept it.

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Arlington, Va.: Did the Rev. Jones agree to not burn the Korans if the imam would move the site of the Islamic Center in New York? Was that the deal?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: I don't know what the deal was. All I've heard is what Rev. Jones has said what the deal was and that was he was not going to burn the Koran because they agreed to move the mosque in New York. We actually have a problem with that entire premise. We don't think bartering should be a part of this process. We believe that Pastor Jones should not burn the Koran because it does not reflect Christian values. And we should not be bartering out of fear. That is never a good thing to do.

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Utica, N.Y.: What are you thoughts on Park 51 (Cordoba House)?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: The World Evangelical Alliance is a world organization. I think it would be best answered by our U.S. colleagues. We know that there are divisions within the Christian community about what should happen there. The principals that I believe should be held intention are on one hand, religious liberty and secondly, sensitivities to people's deeply felt concerns.

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Arlington, Va.: In your opinion, does the attention Pastor Jones got for his plan set a bad precedent for other's who might seek attention with a similar threat?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: I would say we are deeply concerned about the level of attention that Pastor Jones received. When this story first broke back in July we as the World Evangelical Alliance intentionally did not respond to it at all. We did not want to give this story oxygen. We only became public in our response when the magnitude of the global response in the media was at a level where there was no alternative for us but to say something publicly. We did not want to give credence to this very small church and their bigoted attitudes.

The decisions that the media makes will somewhat determine the level of exposure to these kinds of situations.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Don't you think that the media have been grossly and very dangerously irresponsible in elevating this person to national status?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: The reality is that we live in a globalized world and media does pay some responsibility in that but sometimes stories also simply go viral through the Internet and there's no controlling them. Therefore we have to be careful about how we use the communications tools that are available to us today.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you think we are seeing more public displeasure with Islam now than we did after 9/11?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: I think that's a good question. I think again sometimes the media plays a role in that. I think there has been a stereotyping of individuals of different faiths that is not reflective of the majority of people in that faith community. We do not hear the positive stories that are also taking place in the various faith communities.

The voice of radicals seems to win the day and therefore if all we're hearing are negative stories and sometimes untruths, it builds people's own sense of concern. This is true for Muslims but I would also say oftentimes it's true for evangelical Christians. Some of the harshest and most strident voices are sometimes assumed that they speak for all evangelicals when in actuality they're in a very small minority.

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Boston: How big a role do you think politics plays in all these issues? Would Ground Zero be as debated if it wasn't an election year?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: That's a difficult question for me to answer. I'm a Canadian who comes back and forth to our offices in the U.S. so it's hard for me to comment on U.S. political life. But in a general principle around the world, most things are about politics.

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Manassas, Va.: Is anyone concerned about acts of violence against Muslim women and children over this incident?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: We're concerned about acts of violence against all people.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Is local law enforcement in Florida reaching out to the Muslim community? Is anyone concerned about the safety of Muslim women and children?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: I can't speak for the authorities in Florida but I would suggest that the authorities are concerned about violence against all people and I would also add that after the attacks of 9/11 church members protected Muslim people in their communities against acts of violence.

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Rockville, Md.: There IS a lot of awful stuff in the Koran that some people use to justify violence.

What WOULD be an acceptable way to protest its contents?

Geoff Tunnicliffe: I'm not sure if protesting is the right approach. I think dialogue with Muslim leaders is an appropriate response. Also, I think that if you're not a Muslim it could be helpful for you to get to know a Muslim in your community and build a relationship and seek understanding through that process.

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Geoff Tunnicliffe: I feel that in the midst of this circus I think there could be an important message that could be missing. it has been absolutely the right thing for leaders of various faiths and politicians around the world and the media to condemn the acts of this small church in Florida. My question is: can these same groups come together when there are significant acts of violence in other parts of the world; for example, last year in India churches were burned and 50,000 people (Christians) had to flee for their lives. One more example: a radical politician in Afghanistan stands up in parliament and says Muslims that leave their faith and become Christians must be executed. Will we do the right thing and speak out against these kinds of acts as well?

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