WASHINGTON – Leading evangelical Christians (search) for the first time have publicly condemned assaults on Islam by the Rev. Franklin Graham (search) and other fellow religious conservatives and pledged to heal rifts with Muslims that threaten missionary work overseas.
The evangelicals said that the derisive comments endangered Christians working in the Muslim world, strained already tense interfaith relations and fed the perception in the Mideast and beyond that the war on terrorism is a Christian crusade against Islam.
"We must temper our speech," said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (search), which represents more than 43,000 congregations and helped organize a meeting on the issue Wednesday. "There has to be a way to do good works without raising alarms."
Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom (search), a human rights group, said anti-Islam comments serve only to antagonize people. "Exactly what is to be achieved by that except boosting the ego of who said it?" he asked.
Graham was in San Diego on Wednesday for a mission led by his father, the Rev. Billy Graham, and could not immediately be reached to comment, said his spokesman, Jeremy Blume.
Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is among Graham's harshest critics, said she was encouraged by Wednesday's meeting. About 50 representatives of evangelical churches, schools and mission groups attended.
"We can understand theological differences but what's important is that the dialogue is one of respect, not demonization," Hassan said.
No Muslims participated in the event, although a local mosque director was invited.
Muslims were outraged when Franklin Graham called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and again last summer when the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the Prophet Muhammad "a demon-possessed pedophile."
The Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson also have criticized the religion.
Clive Calver, president of World Relief, the humanitarian aid arm of the evangelical association, said all the statements have "placed lives and livelihoods at risk" overseas, where missionaries have become targets of Muslim extremists.
At one point in the gathering, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank, asked if anyone wanted to defend the comments made by Graham, Robertson and Falwell. No one did, though participants also avoided personally criticizing the religious leaders.
The evangelical group and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian organization, are drafting guidelines to begin interfaith dialogue with Islamic leaders. While Muslim leaders have been meeting regularly with liberal Protestants, no such national dialogue has taken place with conservatives.
Evangelicals at the meeting acknowledged they have an arduous task ahead to overcome grievances among members of both faiths.
Conservative Christians have been struggling to end abuse of minority Christians in Muslim countries, while Muslims resent Christian proselytizing in their communities.
Evangelicals will not participate in interfaith talks that require them to play down their beliefs -- a concession they believe liberal Christians have wrongly made to befriend Muslims. And for some conservative Christians, Islam has replaced communism as the "modern-day equivalent of the evil empire," said Rich Cizik, a spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Haggard suggested holding a meeting with Falwell, Robertson and other high-profile evangelicals to explain the damage their comments have caused.
"We've got to have an attitude of how can we serve, how can we help," said Calver. "Saying Islam is evil isn't going to help any of us."