09/09/2011 03:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

Evangelical Leaders Encourage Unity Ahead Of 9/11

NEW YORK -- As Americans continue to debate the controversial decision by New York City officials to not include clergy-recited prayers in the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony Sunday, a coalition representing major evangelical Christian groups came together Friday near ground zero to call for unity between religions as the nation approaches the 9/11 anniversary.

The meeting and press conference, coordinated by Sojourners, a popular evangelical organization and magazine publisher, and the World Evangelical Alliance, a major international group of evangelical churches, called for Christians to reach out to Muslims and other religious groups to stop violence based on religious extremism and to commemorate 9/11.

“The terrorist attacks on 9/11 may have hit the United States, but they shook the whole world,” said the Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO and Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents evangelical denominations and churches in 128 countries. "What can we do to create a better world that is more hopeful and seeks to end these cycles of violence? There is a growing acknowledgment within our global evangelical community that we must build bridges of friendship and trust across ethnic, cultural, and religious divides."

"This is not based upon sociological or political reasons but rather on the example of Christ who broke down barriers and commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves," Geoff added.

The meeting, which also included video and written statements from a handful of a evangelical minsters from Palestine, Jordan, France, Pakistan and New Zealand, among other places, also sought to emphasize the role 9/11 has played in countries other than the U.S.

"We as Arab Christians looked carefully at this situation [9/11],” the Rev. Dr. Andrea Zaki Stephanou, who lives in Egypt and is General Secretary of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, said in a video statement. “We hoped that the outcomes of it would not be more hatred or rejection, but the outcome would be a new understanding of co-existence, a new understanding of peace and a new understanding of how we accept each other as we are."

"It is important for all of us, one decade after this act of September 11th, that we look to the future as people created in the image of God, so that we can live together and we can work together," she added.

Friday's event took place in the New York office of The Christian Post, which overlooks ground zero. Although the speakers Friday said that they supported including clergy and prayers in 9/11 events, such as at the dedication of the Sept. 11 memorial, Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis pointed out that "complaining about not being on stage is not part of unity."

“A lot of people are used to seeing bad religion,” said Wallis. “But the answer to bad religion is not to have no religion or exclude religion entirely, as some have done, but to practice and preach better religion.”

While Friday's group pushed for positive relations between Christians and Muslims in and outside the U.S., the two religious groups have had a rocky relationship in recent years. Persecution of Christian minorities has been reported in several Muslim-majority countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, and there have also been allegations of unethical conduct among Christian missionaries seeking converts in the Middle East.

Earlier this summer, the World Evangelical Alliance joined with the Vatican and the World Council of Churches to issue a set of guidelines for missionary work with the aim of gaining converts without gaining enemies.

The document, "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct," told Christians that they have the duty to "share the good news of God's kingdom," but cautions that they should "build relations of respect and trust with all religions." But it also called on missionaries and evangelists to put a stop to "inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means."