University backs seminary president amid charges of misrepresentation

Ergun Caner

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (ABP) — The president of Liberty Theological Seminary, who apologized in February for calling the head of the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board a liar, is now being questioned about his own testimony of conversion from radical Islam to Christianity.

Liberty University's board of directors decided not to reprimand Ergun Caner, dean of the theology school since 2005, after conducting an inquiry into questions raised about his credibility in numerous blogs.

The ruling, reported by Christianity Today, follows weeks of questions on various blogs about written descriptions of Caner's academic credentials and apparent embellishments in recorded versions of his testimony preached in prominent Baptist pulpits over the years.

Ergun Caner

On April 26 Focus on the Family radio rebroadcast a sermon preached shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, in which Caner said he was born in Sweden, grew up in Turkey and did not learn English until moving to America in 1978. He claimed he was part of "Islamic Jihad" and said it was "my people" who carried out the horrors of the day.

The problem, according to various Internet sites, is that none of that is true.

A Christian blog called Witnesses Unto Me posted legal documents showing that Caner was born in Sweden in November 1966 and moved to Ohio in either 1969 or 1970. Other postings questioned public comments that he was trained as a terrorist, cited evidence that he lived a fairly normal childhood in Ohio and said no evidence could be found to support his claims that he has debated numerous religious leaders of Islamic and other non-Christian faiths.

Caner and his brother, Emir, president of Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, are often featured in Southern Baptist circles as experts about Islam. Their 2002 book, Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs, was the source former SBC President Jerry Vines cited to defend his remark that year labeling the Prophet Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile," which made headlines both in the United States and the Muslim world.

That reputation was the basis for recent attention to Ergun Caner's criticism of the "Camel Method," a way for Christian missionaries to use the Quran as a bridge to discussing the gospel, as fundamentally dishonest. The controversy eventually made it into the New York Times.

About the same time, Mohammad Khan, a 22-year-old Muslim college student in London, posted 17 YouTube videos labeling Caner's conversion story a fraud. Khan said the videos include errors that even a nominal Muslim wouldn't make. Most of Khan's videos have been removed over allegations of copyright violations and his YouTube account has been blocked.

"Testimonies of ex-Muslims who have embraced Christianity have become widespread on the television as well as on the Internet," Khan wrote. "Some of these conversion stories may well be true, while most of them can easily be disproven. These false testimonies are being utilized as a means to indoctrinate the minds of non-Muslims with false information about Islam, with the main aim of generating a hatred toward Islam amongst the masses."

Khan contacted James White, director of a Christian apologetics organization in Phoenix who had sparred with Caner in the past over theological issues like Calvinism. White, an elder in the Reformed Baptist Church who has taught courses at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, said that unlike Khan, he does not doubt that Caner is a former Muslim, but he called upon Caner to explain holes in his conversion story.

Caner responded with a statement Feb. 25 that he would be surprised if there were not "discrepancies" to be found in the hundreds of sermons he has preached over two decades in ministry. He admitted to "pulpit mistakes" but insisted "I have never intentionally misled anyone."

Tom Rich, a blogger who writes as FBC Jax Watchdog, found that hard to swallow. Rich wrote that he remembers believing that Caner was a trained Jihadist terrorist when he heard him for the first time in a November 2001 sermon at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., along with 9,000 other worshippers still shell-shocked from the horror of 9/11. 

"We are on the verge of an evangelical crisis over Caner's embellishments and the refusal of the evangelical leaders and evangelical press to hold Caner accountable for his decade-long deception over his upbringing," Rich wrote May 4.

Liberty officials downplayed the whole controversy as the kind of pulpit exaggeration euphemistically characterized as "ministerially speaking."

"It's not an ethical issue," Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University and dean of the School of Religion, told Christianity Today. "It's not a moral issue. We give faculty a certain amount of theological leverage."

That isn't satisfying critics, who are comparing Caner to Mike Warnke, a supposed former Satanic high priest and popular Christian comedian exposed as a fraud by Cornerstone magazine in 1992. At least one resolution is expected to be proposed at the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting censuring Caner, citing Liberty's ties to SBC-affiliated Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.

"I was born in Istanbul, Turkey," Caner is shown in one video. "I am a sand monkey," a disparaging term for people from the Arab/North African region.

"We came to this country and to this state to build mosques here," Caner is heard in an audio recording speaking to a Baptist group in Ohio. "We were — quote unquote — missionaries to you. We came in '78 when Ayatollah Khomeini said, 'We will not stop until America is an Islamic nation.'"

In his Prestonwood sermon titled "From Jihad to Jesus," which is not listed in Focus on the Family archives, Caner said he didn't know much about Christians the first 17 years of his life, because "there's not that many of them in Turkey or in Sweden." 

In an interview on the "Rick and Bubba" radio show, Caner described himself as "Turkish — 21 generations" and said he came to America when he was 13 years old. He said all he knew of America was from Turkish broadcasts of American television shows like "The Dukes of Hazzard," "The Andy Griffith Show" and sports programming during the 1970s. He claimed he was still learning English when we accepted Christ during his senior year in high school.

Jason Smathers, a Christian website designer, however, dug up a series of documents indicating Caner's family was already in America when Emir, the youngest of three sons, was born in August 1970.

Caner's parents began divorce proceedings in 1975, when he was 8. A 1978 divorce decree awarded custody of him and his two brothers to their mother. A separation agreement said the boys would spend five weeks a year with the father.

The father wanted the boys to be raised as Muslims, while the mother, whose religion is not mentioned in the documents — argued they should receive religious training through each parent so they would be better equipped to make their own religious choices at a "sufficient age" to decide.

Liberty University has not made any formal comment on the allegations against Caner. Caner has declined to be interviewed. "I shall not participate in this anymore," said of the criticism being levied against him in his single public statement so far. "This is absolutely of no interest to me."

An online biography of Caner on Liberty's website was reworded. Formerly "raised as the son of a Muslim leader in Turkey," Caner is now described as "raised as a devout Sunni Muslim along with his two brothers." Also gone is the remark that "Caner has debated Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious leaders in 13 countries and 35 states."


–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.


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