When the story of the fringe Florida pastor and his proposed burning of the Quran broke back in July, we intentionally decided not to give oxygen to the story. However, a couple of weeks ago, when I was in Sweden meeting with Pentecostal church leaders from around the world, several senior leaders from Islamic majority countries approached me about this issue. I was told this bizarre and offensive threat was beginning to get traction -- and demonstrations against Christians were already taking place.
Just over a week ago, I arrived at our New York office. The story was now unfortunately gaining global attention. I went through an array of emotions. Anger, frustration, and embarrassment were just some of my feelings. Even though this tiny obscure church was independent, and not accountable to any denomination or structure, I knew that as the story spread it would be parked in front of our evangelical door.
We began to receive e-mails from around the world expressing deep concern and fears. The World Evangelical Alliance joined the rest of the world in issuing a statement of condemnation of the proposed action, seeking to distance our community and all Christians from this nonsense.
However, deep in my spirit I knew that that was not enough. I felt compelled to reach out and attempt to speak to Pastor Jones. Lots of people were issuing statements and shouting about, and at, Pastor Jones. I felt the biblical imperative, "speaking directly to the person who has offended you" clearly applied.
Without asking, someone provided me with Pastor Jones' cell phone number. With a prayer, I called right away. In some ways I was not expecting to get through; however, I immediately was on the line with this pastor who had gained worldwide attention for all the wrong reasons. After introducing myself, I shared with him the impact of his actions on the Christian community around the world and pleaded with him to call off this offensive action. I offered to fly to Florida to meet with him and his congregation. I concluded by praying for him.
When he announced that he would not burn the Quran because he had made a deal to have the proposed Islamic Center in New York moved, I was deeply torn. On one hand, I was very pleased he was backing away from the burning, but on the other hand, the potential of the deal was ethically and biblically wrong.
Then he announced he was coming to New York to meet with the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. I thought, this is really a bad idea. I agreed fully with the Imam Rauf who had said, "We are not going to toy with our religion or any other. Nor are we here to barter." I let the Islamic leaders know that we fully backed their position of not meeting with Pastor Jones. This 'quid pro quo' would set a dangerous precedent: Whatever the rights and wrongs of building an Islamic center in that location are, if the planners decided not to continue building because of the threat of an offensive and violent act, then that same logic could apply to threats against Christians wanting to build a church somewhere else in the world. Sadly, many Christians are, even today, among those who have lost their lives because of religious intolerance.
Once again, I felt the need to reach out to Pastor Jones. I called him and asked if he would be willing to meet with some Christian leaders and me. He agreed. On the way to the meeting, Pastor Jones called me and indicated that the police were recommending that, for his own security, he not leave the hotel until he was leaving the city. So we agreed that we would conduct the meeting through a speakerphone.
While some may disagree strongly with our meeting with him, I felt it critical to talk with him about the ongoing impact of this past week's activities, think about the future, and figure out how to mitigate the fallout.
For almost one hour, seven of us interacted with Pastor Jones. While I believe it is important that most of the content of the meeting be left private, I can say that the tone of the conversation was respectful, forthright, and hopefully, constructive. I can also say that Pastor Jones told us that he would never burn the Quran. We also explained to him why we believed it was not a good idea to meet with the New York Islamic leaders. We concluded the meeting with an agreement to follow up and the Lord's Prayer.
Some may not understand why we would even give him the time of day. But the biblical imperative is that we must seek to dialogue with those we profoundly disagree with. All our values as Christians must be lived out no matter how difficult.
All along we have been communicating to Islamic leaders that Pastor Jones does not represent the vast majority of Christians. Most of those leaders get that. It is my hope and prayer that this message will get to the grassroots in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia -- and to all Muslims around the world.
As we ask what positive lessons we can all learn from the situation, the World Evangelical Alliance is:
- Pleading with the global media to get the message out that this extremist action has not happened -- and that it was not in any way representative of real Christianity
- Pleading with political and religious leaders, and the media around the world, to condemn attacks on others with equal strength -- including Christians -- which often get far less coverage, and little condemnation
- Strongly encouraging the Muslim community around the world to condemn threats and actions against Christians and others as strongly as we condemned this proposed action
- Pleading for Christians to befriend Muslim neighbors and friends and to pray for those of other faiths -- with real understanding and love; genuinely serving them and sharing Christ with them, in word and deed.
Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe is CEO and secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance.