Graham's appearance at Pentagon draws fire

It sends `wrong message' to Muslims, critics say

April 19, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - He is a modern-day crusader, an unapologetic Christian missionary who wants to bring humanitarian aid to war-ravaged Iraqis, 97 percent of whom are adherents of a religion he has famously branded "very evil and wicked" - Islam.

But if the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the renowned Billy Graham, has been stung by increasing criticism and suspicions over his motives for wanting to enter Iraq, he has chosen not to lie low until the controversy wanes. Instead, he spent yesterday preaching at, of all places, the Pentagon.

That Graham would spend Good Friday on center stage at U.S. military headquarters, even as his own postwar plans are drawing flak, fits in with his flamboyant, in-your-face style.

While his sermon at the services hewed to the meaning of Good Friday, and he made no mention of Islam, Graham freely mixed God and country, the sacred and the patriotic.

"Holy Week is a week where we celebrate and remember the price that was paid for our freedom," he told a standing-room-only crowd that included one of his sons, a West Point cadet. "And of course, this week we look back on the events of the last few weeks and we come today to thank God for this nation. For the freedom he has given us and the principles on which this nation is built, we thank him."

`A red flag'

Still, Graham's appearance yesterday drew controversy - a group of Muslim employees at the Pentagon had protested his invitation because of the evangelist's previous statements about their religion.

The Muslim workers, however, did not demand that the invitation be rescinded, nor did they physically protest the services as they were under way in a Pentagon auditorium.

"He's basically a red flag," said Louis Cantori, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political scientist and Middle East expert. "He is personally provocative."

Graham angers Muslims not just because of his inflammatory statements, but because he is close to President Bush and thus has a certain imprimatur that others who have criticized their religion don't necessarily have.

Although the president has been careful not to antagonize Muslims - he has gone out of his way to characterize Islam as "a religion of peace" - Muslims are well aware of the ties between the Bush and Graham clans: Franklin Graham gave the invocation at Bush's inauguration in 2001, and Billy Graham, who has long advised American presidents, was instrumental in Bush's born-again conversion.

"It sends entirely the wrong message," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said of Bush's ties to Graham. "It seems to offer government endorsement of the bigoted views of Franklin Graham.

"If a Muslim leader had attacked Judaism or Christianity, there would have been a hue and cry if he spoke at the Pentagon," Hooper said. "He would have been disinvited, and should have."

`On a crusade'

Pentagon officials took pains to stress that Graham's appearance at the service was just one of numerous religious gatherings - for various Christian, Jewish and Muslim denominations - that are held for employees who wish for a bit of spirituality in the midst of their workdays.

But critics say Graham's appearance would feed a perception in the Muslim world that his views are the views of the U.S. government.

"This will be used by Muslim fundamentalists to fan the flames," said Charles Kimball, chairman of Wake Forest University's religion department and author of the recent book, When Religion Becomes Evil. "They will use Franklin Graham giving the invocation at George Bush's inauguration, they are going to use that he [spoke] at the Pentagon on Good Friday.

"This will play into the Muslim radicals' view that America is on a crusade," he said. "You already have a great deal of suspicion over what the U.S.' intentions in Iraq are."

Graham refused interview requests after the service, which drew an enthusiastic audience that spilled out from the 250-seat auditorium.

His sermon largely dealt with religion, befitting one of the holiest days for Christians, commemorating the day Jesus Christ was crucified.

He did not speak about his plans for providing humanitarian assistance to Iraq once military officials allow aid groups to enter the country.

Controversial group

Graham runs an organization, Samaritan's Purse, that says it offers "spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world." It has proved controversial because it has mixed assistance with proselytizing in the past.

In the first gulf war, Graham drew the ire of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf because he tried to get U.S. troops to distribute tens of thousands of Bibles translated into Arabic to Saudi Arabians. That country, and other Islamic nations, had passed laws banning proselytization because several Christian groups had been targeting Muslim areas for missionary work. Despite the uproar, Graham remained defiant and proclaimed that he was only doing the Lord's work.

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