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Secular media wrong about meeting on dialogue with Muslims

WASHINGTON (BP)–Headlines surfacing in the secular press regarding a recent meeting of evangelical leaders to discuss Christian-Muslim dialogue imply that the group rebuked fellow evangelicals such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jerry Vines for so-called inflammatory comments they have made about Muslims.

However, a copy of the three-page “Guidelines for Christian-Muslim Dialogue” written by Institute of Religion and Democracy Vice President Alan Wisdom and released at the meeting make no mention of Graham, Falwell, Robertson or Vines.

According to a news release from the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which co-sponsored the May 7 meeting in Washington with the National Association of Evangelicals, the particular purpose of the consultation was to discuss appropriate public rhetoric and to encourage greater evangelical-Muslim interaction in local communities.

But reports from several noted news organizations imply otherwise.

— A headline in The New York Times May 8 read, “Top Evangelicals Critical of Colleagues Over Islam,” and highlighted Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, as saying, “Since we are in a global community, no doubt about it, we must temper our speech and we must communicate primarily through actions.” Haggard’s comment was followed by a paragraph noting evangelical leaders Graham, Falwell and Vines “began publicly branding Islam, or Islam’s prophet Muhammad, as inherently evil and violent” more than a year ago.

— The Associated Press opened its May 8 article with, “Leading evangelicals for the first time have publicly condemned assaults on Islam by the Rev. Franklin Graham and other fellow religious conservatives and pledged to heal rifts with Muslims that threaten missionary work overseas.” The Associated Press also utilized Haggard’s quote about tempering speech and also reminded readers of comments made by Graham, Vines, Falwell and Robertson.

— “Ministers Asked to Curb Remarks About Islam” was the headline in The Washington Post May 8. The first paragraph read, “Evangelical Christian leaders from across the country called yesterday for fellow ministers such as Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson to stop making broad, inflammatory remarks about Islam,” and was followed by Haggard’s comment.

— The Washington Times headline May 8 was “Summit criticizes anti-Islam remarks,” but the article did bring to light a different angle noting that a survey showed most evangelicals agree with comments made by Graham, Falwell and Robertson.

Richard Cizik, vice president for the National Association of Evangelicals, told Baptist Press, “I don’t recall any of those individuals being mentioned by name from the podium. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the proposed guidelines drafted by the IRD for public dialogue about Islam, certainly not to chastise anybody for their comments about Islam.”

IRD spokesman Erik Nelson said he did not recall specific names mentioned and had sensed a misrepresentation in the media.

“My impression was that the secular media was more interested in hearing about what we said about Franklin Graham than they were about the purpose of the meeting,” Nelson said. “The meeting was more about other things like how evangelicals could engage in Christian-Muslim dialogue while avoiding the problems” that some liberal or some conservative Christians have encountered.

Christianity Today’s Weblog May 8 recognized the discrepancy between mainstream media reports and what actually happened at the meeting. “Yesterday, about 40 or 50 evangelical leaders got together to criticize evangelist Franklin Graham. Or so it would seem from media reports,” the Weblog said, also pointing out that “judging from the news stories themselves, it seems that characterizing it as a meeting about Franklin Graham is spurious. None of the stories on the event even quote anyone explicitly critical of Graham. Not one. In fact, says Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll, participants ‘avoided personally criticizing religious leaders.'”

To shed light on what the meeting was really about, the IRD news release said the guidelines presented at the consultation attempt to address the “oversimplification about Islam and Muslims — either positive or negative — that thwarts true dialogue, true education and genuine Christian mission.”

As the guideline author, Wisdom recommends that those entering into dialogue with Muslims “have a firm grasp of an orthodox faith in the mainstream of the Christian tradition” as well as to “give testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so.” This, the release said, is in response to liberal trends in interfaith dialogue that diminish the role of evangelism and do not always honestly represent the beliefs of those within the church.

Wisdom also recommends that Christians must “seek to understand Islam and Muslim peoples” because “to show Christ’s love effectively to our Muslim neighbors (near and far), we must clear away misconceptions and gain accurate insights into Muslim beliefs and practices.” This, the release said, is in response to conservatives who have reacted with suspicion toward Muslims and have made unhelpful sweeping statements and even gratuitous insults regarding Islam.

The proposed guidelines identify 12 actions that are “appropriate and necessary” and eight actions that are “inappropriate and damaging” to Christian-Muslim dialogue. Among the appropriate and necessary: giving testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which may involve “arguing, explaining, proving, proclaiming and persuading.” Among the inappropriate and damaging: “We do not wish to strip our worship down to the point that Muslims would find it acceptable, nor do we require Muslims to reduce their worship to a point that would be acceptable to Christians.”

The meeting consisted of brief presentations by six evangelical leaders including Haggard; Diane Knippers, president of the IRD; Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; Paul Marshal, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House; Wisdom; and Clive Calver, president of World Relief.

Cromartie, in his presentation, drew attention to the results of a poll conducted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and beliefnet.com, which was released in April. The survey of 350 responses from a national sample of leaders of evangelical organizations — including Southern Baptists — from the fall of 2002 found that 77 percent have an unfavorable view of Islam. Eighty-nine percent of evangelicals polled said it is very important that the evangelical community insist on the truth of the Gospel when interacting with Muslims. Seventy percent agreed that Islam is a religion of violence.

The Washington Times included the EPPC/Beliefnet survey in its article regarding the meeting to show that “most evangelicals agree with comments by the Revs. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, as well as by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.”

Haggard, in his presentation, said globalization will force evangelicals to engage with Muslims.

“We have a responsibility to help people be better off,” he explained about relief efforts by evangelicals in majority-Muslim nations. Such efforts will inevitably create opportunities for exploring questions of religion. “Freedom should exist to answer when we are asked why we are there.”

Baptist Press attempted to contact Graham, Falwell and Robertson but each was unavailable because of travel schedules, meetings and television tapings, respectively.

Falwell, in a phone interview reported by The Washington Post, said the NAE was “trying to do something noble, and we will participate” in the future.

“Almost suddenly, the world has become very tiny, and every comment from any portion of the planet that is important will be heard in every other part of the planet the same day,” he told The Post. “So, yes, we do need to be more careful, and I hope we have all learned from what we say and do.”

In a phone interview with the Associated Press, Falwell said that he regretted saying in a “60 Minutes” interview last year that he had concluded after reading books on Islam that “Muhammad was a terrorist.”

“In this media-sensitive world, we must be cautious that we walk a tightrope that does not allow offending others while at the same time never compromising what we believe,” Falwell also told the Associated Press. “At the same time we cannot expect hundreds of thousands of evangelical church leaders to go silent when somebody asks what they think about any religion, just because those religions might kill their missionaries.”

Vines, in a previous statement carried by Baptist Press Feb. 27, said, “It is certainly not hate to tell the truth about any religion based upon its own authoritative documents. It is certainly not hate to say that all religions are not the same, nor equally true (any elementary school child of average intelligence knows that). It is not hate to tell people that Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, the life, no man comes to the Father but by me’ (John 14:6).”

Cizik said the same evangelical group anticipates a follow-up meeting in Washington Oct. 15-16 to finalize the guidelines and privately collaborate on the same topics.

“What I think needs to be said is that as evangelical leaders in a global village we ought to offer a constructive critique of sweeping generalizations about Islam that are occurring out there, some of which are fawning and some are outright hostile to Islam,” Cizik said. “We’ve got to find a way to critique both that is consistent with our orthodox Christian faith.” He also added that he thinks the group is proceeding apace and getting a good response.

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  • Erin Curry