A high school buddy invited Caner to a small church revival in Columbus, Ohio. His friend was not intimidated by Caner's Muslim clothes or flawed English. And no one in the congregation ridiculed him with epithets of "towel head" or "camel jockey," as he had heard at school.(April 17, 2002, AP)
Born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Turkish father, Caner lived in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt before coming to America as a missionary. His father was a muezzin, the official at a mosque who gives the call to prayer.(April 17, 2002, AP)
When the Caner boys came into the world, their Turkish-born father, Acar, the man who called the faithful to prayer at the mosque, whispered in their ears the words they were to live by: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."(July 2, 2002, AP)
But they were living in Columbus, Ohio, far from Acar's Sunni Muslim origins. After their parents separated, others were soon whispering in the Caner boys' ears.
Ergun Caner, the oldest of Acar's three boys, was the first to convert. He was 15 when he accepted a friend's invitation to a weeklong church revival.
To him, his relationship with Allah was impersonal, ritualistic. The message he got at Stelzer Baptist Church was something completely different.
"Christ died for man. That was one thing for me to hear. It was quite another thing for me to hear that Christ died for me. Ha. Then it becomes personal," says Ergun, now 35. "I thought this was good news for all Muslims."
Instead of welcoming the news, Acar Caner told his son he no longer wanted to see him. When younger brothers Emir and Erdem (who now goes by Mark) went for visitation with their father, there was no talk of Ergun; their elder brother's face had been cut from family photographs. Despite that, the two younger brothers soon followed Ergun's path, with the same results.
The Caners are convinced otherwise. As boys growing up in Ohio, the two converted to Christianity after being invited to a Baptist church in their neighborhood when they were teenagers. Their conversion cost them the love of their father, who disowned them for more than a decade.
Emir Caner said the break came at dinner one day when he was 12 years old. "I told him I could not pray to Allah anymore. I found Jesus Christ as my savior," Caner recalled. "He said, 'You either choose between me or your religion.'"
(Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2002)
But at 16, Ergun attended Stelzer Road Baptist Church in Columbus and says he found salvation through Jesus Christ. When he told his father, Acar made him choose. Ergun lost his earthly father, he says, by choosing his heavenly Father.(Dallas Morning News, September 14, 2002)
"My father thought what he was doing was an act of mercy by disowning me," he says, pointing out that his father could have sent him to Turkey to immerse him in Islam. In other places in the world, he says, people who leave the Islamic faith are to be put to death.
"This was hard for me," he says. "My father was my hero. My father was everything to me."
Ergun's two brothers would follow suit within 18 months. And just as he had done with his oldest son, Acar Caner broke ties with his young sons. Emir and another brother would go live full-time with their mother, who later converted to Christianity. The sons wouldn't see the father again until days before his death.
In 1999, they received a surprise call from a stepsister whom they had never met when their father was dying from cancer. They flew to Ohio not knowing whether he would want to see them, and they thanked God when he did.(Dallas Morning News, September 14, 2002)
"It was, of course, awkward," Ergun says, noting that men from the mosque were also present. "We tried to share the gospel with him. He tried to share Islam with us, trying to get us back."
Some people have suggested that the earlier testimonies are more accurate than the later ones. It may be possible that Caner's family lived very briefly in "Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt" before coming to the U.S. However, Caner himself was apparently two or three years old when the Caners arrived in America.
I do wonder whether the "15 years old" information is correct. That report is inconsistent with the November 4, 1982, date that is sometimes given, but it is consistent with the idea that Emir Caner came to faith on November 4, 1982, and that Ergun Caner was saved about a year earlier.
The "15 years old" information would be consistent with Emir's "12 years old" information and a gap of one year between their conversions. However, it is not consistent with the "16 years old" and the "18 months" gap suggested by the final story quoted above.
In short, even if we go with only the Caner testimonies that are presented in the press in 2002, we already see a set of seemingly impossible to reconcile differences emerging.
UPDATE: Fredericka in the comment box has identified an article apparently from Connection Magazine, September 2002 (link to article).
That article says Ergun was 17 (which is even more inconsistent with the accounts above), "But he was raised in a strict Muslim home in Ohio and was a devout worshiper of Allah until age 17, when he was led to Christ through the witness of one of his high school friends."
The article also indicates that Ergun lead Emir to Christ: "Caner in turn led to Christ his own brother, Emir, who today is a professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina."
The article even quotes Caner thus:
"For the first 17 years of my life, I assumed that I was to be at war" with Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims, Caner recalls. He adds that according to a conservative U.S. State Department estimate, there are currently 300,000 Muslims worldwide with that identical driving ideal - the doctrine of jihad.Caner is also quoted claiming to have worn Muslim robes:
"It wasn't through the eloquence of a preacher, or the beauty of a building that I came to Christ," Caner explains. "It was through the simple witness of a high school boy who did not care that I wore my [Muslim] robes, and looked different, and spoke different, and had poor English. He did not care that I hung out with other Muslims because everyone else was an open enemy according to my faith. All he knew was that Jesus Christ had died for him and had died for me, and he was saved and he wanted me to get saved, too."
That high school boy invited Caner to a four-day revival campaign at a local Baptist church in Columbus, Ohio, where Caner experienced the love of God for the first time. "That church loved me to the cross of Jesus Christ," Caner recalls. "They were nice to me in spite of my open hatred toward them as Christians."
For four days, Caner heard the good news that Jesus Christ was more than just a prophet of Allah as he had always been taught. He was God who came in the flesh to die for the sins of all people. By the fourth night, the 17-year-old devout Muslim was ready to become a new creature in Christ. Caner recalls that the pastor explained God's mercy and grace in the simplest possible terms.