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Doug Coe, influential evangelical leader; at 88

NEW YORK — Doug Coe, an evangelical leader who gained influence with powerful figures around the world as head of a prominent but secretive organization that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington and in many state capitals, died Feb. 21 at his home in Annapolis, Md. He was 88.

Under Mr. Coe’s guidance, the National Prayer Breakfast, begun in 1953, grew to become a Washington institution, attended by every sitting president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Trump spoke to religious leaders there on Feb. 2. Guest speakers have been as diverse as Mother Teresa and the Irish rock singer Bono.

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Mr. Coe was regarded by many political and business leaders as a spiritual mentor who blurred the line between religion and philosophy. Many in his orbit, including presidents and members of Congress of both parties, described him as a quiet organizer who used spirituality to build relationships, often with unlikely allies.

In her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” Hillary Clinton recalled Mr. Coe as “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God and offer the gift of service to others in need.”

As a senator from New York, Clinton was also a frequent attendee of a smaller weekly prayer group for members of Congress that Mr. Coe led personally for years.

His proximity to so many high-ranking politicians made him an object of curiosity in Washington, while inviting speculation about his motives and ideology. He rarely spoke in public or to the news media. In private gatherings he was known to use improbable metaphors — likening Maoists and Nazis, for example, to religious zealots and extolling them as effective leaders.

Mr. Coe’s insistence that his personal counseling be done behind closed doors only contributed to his mystique. Time magazine, in listing him among the most influential evangelical leaders in the United States in 2005, referred to him as Washington’s “stealth Billy Graham.”

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Much of Mr. Coe’s legacy was built through his work with the Fellowship Foundation, also known simply as the Fellowship or the Family.

Those who identified as members or worked with Mr. Coe often adopted his official silence.

“I wish I could say more about it,” President Reagan said in 1985, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”

In the 1980s and ’90s Mr. Coe funded several trips for members of Congress to meet with African leaders who had been shunned by Western powers, among them President Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia and President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.

Those who took part in the trips, including Mr. Coe and his associates, maintained that the visits were personal in nature. But many US officials viewed them as an inappropriate form of back-channel diplomacy.

Some of the foreign leaders Mr. Coe met had been linked to atrocities in their countries, but he insisted that spiritual conversations with them could lead to productive cooperation.

In 2001, drawing on his connections in Africa, Mr. Coe invited the warring presidents Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Paul Kagame of Rwanda to his home — then in Arlington, Va. — for a casual meeting in the hope of fostering a peace deal. The two continued talks and eventually signed an accord in 2003.

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Mr. Coe conceded that some of the leaders he met were unsavory, but he was unapologetic about associating with them.

“Most of my friends are bad people,” he told The New Yorker in 2010. “They all broke the Ten Commandments, as far as I can tell.” But, he added, “Jesus even met with the devil.”