Despite his call for the U.S. to win the "hearts and minds of the Islamic world," Sen. John McCain recruited the support of an evangelical minister who describes Islam as "anti-Christ" and Mohammed as "the mouthpiece of a conspiracy of spiritual evil."
Late Thursday McCain announced he was rejecting Pastor Rod Parsley's endorsement he had once so eagerly sought.
McCain sought the support of Pastor Parsley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, Ohio at a critical time in his campaign in February, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was continuing to draw substantial support from the Christian right.
At a campaign appearance in Cincinnati, McCain introduced Parsley as "one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide."
Campaign aides positioned Parsley right behind McCain for photographers, apparently unconcerned about Parsley's well-established denunciations of the Islamic faith in a book "Silent No More" and on DVDs of sermons about Islam.
"Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world," Parsley says on the DVDs reviewed by ABC News.
Mother Jones first reported Parsley's anti-Muslim views in an article March 12, but McCain took no steps to dissociate himself from Parsley until after ABC News broadcast some of Parsley's sermons on "Good Morning America" Thursday. [Read Mother Jones' article.]
"America was founded with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed," Parsley says, "and I believe Sept. 11, 2001 was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore."
Parsley's views and his connection to the McCain campaign are now beginning to show up on Arab Web sites and newspapers.
Al Moheet, a regional Arabic Web site operating in Egypt, carries the story with a picture of McCain and the headline: "McCain's Spiritual Adviser Calls for the Destruction of Islam."
"If there is a McCain presidency, he will start with a serious handicap in the Arab world," said former CIA intelligence officer John Kiriakou. "And the handicap is that it is already assumed in Muslim countries that they will not get a fair shake from a McCain administration," said Kiriakou.
In a statement to ABC News about Parsley's comments, McCain's campaign said the senator "obviously strongly rejects such statements." The campaign did not answer the question of whether it was aware of Parsley's widely publicized statements prior to seeking his endorsement in February.
McCain has not disassociated himself from the pastor, but the campaign statement said, "Just because someone endorses John McCain doesn't mean he endorses all of their views."
McCain has repeatedly urged the U.S. to show respect for Islam. "Our goal must be to win the 'hearts and minds' of the vast majority of moderate Muslims who do not want their future controlled by a minority of violent extremists," McCain told the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles on March 26.
But well before he was asked to endorse McCain, Pastor Parsley took a much different view about moderate Muslims in his book and sermons. "I would counter respectfully that what some people call extremists are instead mainstream Muslim believers who are drawing from the well at the very heart of Islam," he said.
McCain said in his March speech, "We must remember that our freedoms are not only defended by our diplomacy and military power but, very importantly, by the decency and respect with which we treat one another."