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Muslims demand Pentagon rescind Graham invitation

WASHINGTON—Outraged American Muslims are urging the Pentagon to rescind an invitation for a prominent Christian evangelist who has harshly criticized Islam to appear at a prayer service Friday.

Franklin Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, will deliver a homily at a Good Friday prayer service at the Pentagon, a spokesperson said. Franklin Graham called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a comment he has refused to recant.

Graham heads Samaritan's Purse, a fundamentalist Christian organization with a $194 million budget for humanitarian aid and ministry. The group, known for its active proselytizing, has workers in Jordan and is poised to deliver aid in Iraq.

Critics contend that Graham's appearance at the Pentagon will only reinforce perceptions among Muslims that the U.S. war in Iraq is a crusade against Islam.

"It sends a completely horrible message to the Muslim world," said Sarah Eltantawi of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a policy-oriented and grassroots lobbying organization. "I can't think of a worse idea than inviting him to speak at this time."

"We're concerned that a man who repeatedly states that Islam is intrinsically evil would be invited to the Pentagon for any reason," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which aims to educate non-Muslims about Islam. Hooper and other Muslim-American leaders insist that the Pentagon rescind Graham's invitation and invite a less divisive Christian minister instead.

The Pentagon "does not intend to disinvite Mr. Graham," said Martha Rudd, spokeswoman for its chaplain's office. Graham agreed to speak at the services after a group of Christian employees requested him. His appearance has been scheduled for at least three months, she said.

"We support the right of the Christian community to have their service as they wish," Rudd said.

Muslim-American leaders are suspicious of the timing of Graham's appearance—as the war in Iraq winds down—and his group's mission in Iraq. In addition, Graham's close ties to the administration worry them: He delivered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration. For Eltantawi, Graham is "a representative of America to the Muslim world."

Muslim-American groups are urging their members to write to the Pentagon, Eltantawi said, adding that this issue is "guaranteed to get people into action."

In a letter of protest, a Muslim lay leader at the Pentagon, Zadil Ansari, said the invitation suggests that the Pentagon condones "public displays of attitudes and thoughts that contradict not only Department of Defense regulations but also the American ideal of religious tolerance."

Rudd defended the Pentagon's religious tolerance. While there were no Muslim clerics, the Pentagon has hosted multifaith services, she said. The department's chaplains "try very hard to be inclusive," she said.

The controversy over Graham comes as Muslim Americans scrutinize Bush's nomination of Daniel Pipes, a scholar who has made comments attacking Islam, to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federal think tank.

Samaritan's Purse's assistance for Iraqis has also raised eyebrows.

One aid worker for a secular group said some Muslims near the Jordan-Iraq border accepted help from Samaritan's Purse without knowing its Christian agenda. The aid worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Muslims stopped taking the food and water once they realized the group's proselytizing agenda. Tying aid to religious conversion is "not going to be very effective. Whether it is morally right is a further question," he said.

A Samaritan's Purse spokesman said none of the group's Iraqi aid money comes from the federal government. That gives it freedom from government mandates that federal money not be used for religious purposes.

Samaritan's Purse has received nearly $4.2 million in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development since 1988. Much of that money goes toward humanitarian work in Sudan. The organization has been ranked by SmartMoney Magazine as one of the most efficient religious charities because it spends only a small fraction of its money on administrative costs.

In 2001, the agency issued a rebuke to Samaritan's Purse after it received complaints that the group's demonstrations on how to construct model shelters were preceded by a half-hour of prayer and religious teaching. The agency concluded that aid distribution was not directly linked to religious conversion but cited "a possible appearance of linkage between these religious activities and our assistance program." Any such ties are unconstitutional, the agency said. The agency has not found any further problems, a spokesperson said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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Franklin Graham.