Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 7 News List

US evangelicals chide leaders for their nasty words

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

US evangelical leaders meeting here on Wednesday denounced as "dangerous" and "unhelpful" the anti-Islam remarks made in the last year by leaders in their own movement and proposed new guidelines for churches to follow in relating to Muslims.

At the same time, the religious leaders reaffirmed their commitment to proselytizing, and they accused mainline Protestants and groups like the World Council of Churches of holding "naive" dialogue sessions with Muslims that minimized theological and political differences.

The meeting came at a time when Christian leaders are deeply divided over whether their goal should be to coexist with Muslims or to convert them.

It was convened by the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 43,000 congregations, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian group in Washington that often critiques mainline Protestantism.

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, said to the 40 leaders attending on Wednesday, "Since we are in a global community, no doubt about it, we must temper our speech and we must communicate primarily through actions."

It has been more than a year since major evangelical leaders, like the Franklin Graham, the Jerry Falwell and the Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, began publicly branding Islam, or Islam's prophet Muhammad, as inherently evil and violent.

Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and head of a global missions agency, Samaritan's Purse, said last year that Islam was "a very evil and wicked religion." Vines described Muhammad as "a demon-possessed pedophile."

The evangelical leaders here on Wednesday issued what one of them called a "loving rebuke" to their colleagues for remarks that they said tarnished American Christians and jeopardized the safety of missionaries and indigenous Christians in predominantly Muslim countries.

Dr. Clive Calver, president of World Relief, the relief and development agency of the National Association of Evangelicals, told the group, "It's very dangerous to build more barriers when we're supposed to be following one who pulled the barriers down," a reference to Jesus.

In an interview, Calver said that when he was working recently in the Mideast with Muslim members of the Red Crescent relief agency, Graham's comments were circulating widely.

"It's used to indict all Americans and used to indict all Christians," said Calver, who is British. "It obviously puts lives and livelihoods of people overseas at risk."

None of the evangelical or Protestant leaders who were criticized attended the meeting.

Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, said in a telephone interview that he welcomed the evangelicals' statements and encouragement of interfaith dialogue -- even the emphasis on sharing the gospel with Muslims.

"I don't have any problem with that because interfaith dialogue does not mean diluting the individual traditions of the different faiths," Syeed said. "All it means is that we respect each other's world view."

Officials here said Wednesday that they did not want to undermine the missionary work of their fellow evangelicals and that they would convene a session soon with those they had criticized.

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