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The Canadian who doused the flames of Koran-burning fury

Geoff Tunnicliffe of the World Evangelical Alliance.

Gerry Chudleigh/Adventist News Network

Around the world, Terry Jones is the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans on Sept. 11.

But to the Canadian religious leader who helped talk him out of his incendiary plan, he is nothing more than a "deeply confused" individual whose main emotion on the recent anniversary of the terrorist attacks was, simply, fear.

"He was afraid," said Geoff Tunnicliffe, the Vancouver-based CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance, who spoke to Pastor Jones on several occasions last week in an effort to dissuade him from his plan.

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On Sept. 11, Dr. Tunnicliffe was one of several evangelical leaders who spoke to Mr. Jones on a conference call in Manhattan. The 58-year-old Gainesville man had come to New York in an effort to meet with a local imam, but had been told by police that he should not leave his Manhattan hotel room, or even reveal his location, because of threats against him.

"Twice we asked him what we could pray for, and he said, 'That I'll get home safely,'" Dr. Tunnicliffe said on Thursday, recalling the exchange.

Dr. Tunnicliffe first heard of Mr. Jones's plan in early July, but had decided to ignore the situation and "just hope it will go away." But by late August, news of the event had made its away out of Florida and around the world.

At a meeting of Pentecostal leaders in Sweden, Dr. Tunnicliffe - who says his organization represents 420 million members around the world - was approached by representatives from Tunisia, India and Malaysia who said International Burn a Koran Day had already resulted in protests against the Christian church in their communities.

And so, last Tuesday, after a consultation with the White House, the Canadian found himself dialing Mr. Jones's cellphone for the first time.

"If you have a problem with someone, you go talk to them. It's one of our deeply held Christian values that we engage with people, even the people we strongly disagree with," he said.

With a tiny following and no formal religious affiliation, Mr. Jones was viewed as a fringe character, and many people worried he would gain credibility through formal acknowledgement.

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But after U.S. President Barack Obama directly appealed to the Florida pastor to call off his plan, Dr. Tunnicliffe decided he also had an obligation to intervene.

In a 12- to 15-minute conversation, Dr. Tunnicliffe explained his position to Mr. Jones, and why he believed burning a Koran did not reflect Biblical values.

"He's a person that's deeply misinformed and his understanding of theology is not representative of the vast majority of the church," he said. "He's really isolated."

He planned to fly to Florida on Sept. 10 to make his argument in person, but last Thursday Mr. Jones announced that he would be going to New York, and would call off the Koran burning if the city shut down plans for an Islamic centre near ground zero.

"The level of intensity of this thing was unreal," Dr. Tunnicliffe said from the WEA offices in New York.

Mr. Jones had also agreed to meet face to face with Dr. Tunnicliffe and other evangelical leaders, but phoned them on Saturday to say his police escort had advised him to remain hidden.

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Over the phone, Dr. Tunnicliff advised him to issue an apology, "to say something that would bring some good from a terrible situation."

"He had no exit plan. He had not thought through any next step," Dr. Tunnicliffe said. "He had the attention of the world and he didn't know what he was going to do."

Mr. Jones returned to Florida without burning any Korans, but held a news conference this week denouncing the Christian church as "self-centered, selfish and cowardly."

"They have lost their guts to stand up for what is right … to stand up for Christianity, but instead they bow down to political powers and to the false doctrines of the nations," he said.

Dr. Tunnicliffe has not made contact again, but heard Mr. Jones plans to move to Tampa, where he believes he will have a larger following.

He is profoundly disappointed that the pastor did not heed his advice to apologize, and said that while he has received calls of thanks from the White House and around the world, he remains conflicted about how the situation was handled.

"It was absolutely right that the world came together against him and his threat. My question is, in the future, are we prepared to speak out to try and stop similar actions around the world?" he said. "Where's the consistency in how we act? Why in this case, and not in others?"

But he does believe the experience illustrates the power of his home country to intervene in such controversies.

"I think Canadians are perceived around the world as being diplomats, peacemakers," he said. "I think that helped me in my position through this. I think if I was an American, it would have been tougher."

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