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Jerry’s Falwell’s choice as new dean of his Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary drew criticism from observers who said it could hurt relations between evangelical Christians and Muslim Americans.

Falwell announced the Feb. 4 appointment of Ergun Caner in his weekly “Falwell Confidential” column last Friday. Caner, a professor of theology and church history at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., replaces former dean Danny Lovett, who is leaving after 12 years to become president of Tennessee Temple University.

Caner, a converted Sunni Muslim whose father was an Islamic scholar, is best known for a 2002 book he co-wrote with his brother, Emir, Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs.

Former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines cited the book as his source when defending his controversial statement at the SBC Pastors Conference in 2002 labeling the Muslim Prophet Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile.”

Speaking at the same gathering this past June, Caner said Islamic terrorists around the world don’t have a hard time recruiting suicide bombers, because millions of Muslims believe dying a martyr’s death in a holy war assures them of going to heaven.

Caner said Jesus’ atoning death relieved him of the pressure to tilt “the scales” so his own righteousness would outweigh his unrighteousness at the end of his life. “Jesus strapped a cross on his back so I wouldn’t have to strap a bomb on mine,” Caner said.

Falwell, who founded Liberty University in 1971, said Caner would be the first former Muslim to become dean of an evangelical seminary in the United States. He described the 38-year-old Caner as “a very popular professor” in Liberty’s school of religion for the last two years, who has become known for his “humorous and pointed preaching and his national profile.”

That profile has also earned Caner critics for his book, which says Muhammad’s third wife, Aisha, was 9 years old when the couple had sex.

“If this appointment is just a ploy to exacerbate tensions and continue the mud-slinging, I don’t think it serves Christianity, Islam or America,” said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, quoted in Religion News Service.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, told RNS he has experienced a reticence from the evangelical community to engage in genuine dialogue.

“Muslims are always open to dialogue,” Hooper said, “but I sense no desire for dialogue among certain segments of the evangelical community.”

RNS also quoted an evangelical scholar who expressed concern that Caner’s appointment might damage evangelical efforts to make connections with Muslims even as they disagree with them theologically.

“Insulting Muslims, insulting anyone, is not a very good strategy for developing relations with them,” said Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington.

Caner said in an interview with the news service that he supports the idea of a relationship between Muslims and Christians in theory but takes a dim view of dialogue that brushes over differences among faiths.

“I don’t think Muslims or evangelicals are going to sacrifice truth on any kind of altar of dialogue,” he said, “Stating your opinion is more important than hiding it under the cloak of ‘Can’t we just get along?'”

“We believe that Muslims need to be saved, just as Muslims believe we need to be reverted,” he added, saying that when he converted to Christianity, he “didn’t switch religions, I got saved.”

Caner’s own Web site says the national media have described him as “the intellectual pit bull of the evangelical world.” He debated filmmaker Michael Moore in a nationally syndicated column called “Hatriotism” and has debated Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist scholars at more than 50 college campuses.

The Caner brothers’ new book, Christian Jihad: Two Former Muslims Look at the
Crusades and Killing in the Name of Christ,
examines a time when Christianity “carried out its own jihad, for political purposes,” according to a blurb.

In his sermon at the SBC Pastors Conference last June, Caner acknowledged that like Islam, Christianity also has used violence in history, but there is a difference. “We learned from our mistakes,” he said. “Christ never called us to kill in the name of Jesus. There is a difference between Christians in the military and a Christian military.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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