Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and one of the nation's most outspoken critics of Islam, said Wednesday he has relief workers "poised and ready" to roll into Iraq to provide for the population's post-war physical and spiritual needs.
Graham, who has publicly called Islam a "wicked" religion, said the relief agency he runs, Samaritan's Purse, is in daily contact with U.S. government agencies in Amman, Jordan, about its plans. The group's main objective is to help refugees and people who have lost their homes or are sick and hungry as a result of the war, Graham told Beliefnet. "We realize we're in an Arab country and we just can't go out and preach," Graham said in a telephone interview from Samaritan's Purse headquarters in Boone, N.C.
However, he added, "I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son....We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ."
Graham didn't seem concerned that the public presence in Iraq of Samaritan's Purse — which has put out a press release about its activities — could prompt already-skeptical Muslims worldwide to view the war as a crusade against Islam.
"We would not go in and participate in something that would embarrass our administration," he said. But he added, "We don't work for the U.S. government, so we don't get our permission from them."
Some Muslims were outraged that Graham would be allowed to help with Iraq's humanitarian effort.
"Franklin Graham obviously thinks it is a war against Islam," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "This is a guy who gave the invocation at President Bush's inauguration and believes Islam is a wicked faith. And he's going to go into Iraq in the wake of an invading army and convert people to Christianity? Nothing good is coming of that."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development said Wednesday night she could not comment on short notice.
Meanwhile, officials from the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, are also planning a large relief effort in Iraq once the war ends. The International Mission Board has already sent about $200,000 in hunger funds and $50,000 in general relief funds to its workers in Amman, Jordan.
"This is not just a great opportunity to do humanitarian work but to share God's love," said Sam Porter, state disaster relief director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. "We understand that the individual people of Iraq have done nothing to hurt us. We want to help them to have true freedom in Jesus Christ."
On Wednesday, Graham was unusually guarded in his comments about Islam, saying only that "when people ask, I let them know I don't believe in their God. But I respect their right to believe whatever they want to believe."
Two months after Sept. 11, 2001, however, he called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion." Last summer he said Muslims hadn't sufficiently apologized for the terrorist attacks — and he challenged Muslim leaders to offer to help rebuild Lower Manhattan or compensate the families of victims to show they condemn terrorism.
That comment followed a string of remarks about Islam and Muslims, as Graham promoted his book, The Name. In it, Graham wrote that "Islam — unlike Christianity — has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths." Then, in an interview with Beliefnet, he reiterated his opinion, saying, "I believe the Koran teaches violence, not peace."
In an indirect criticism of President Bush, Graham told Beliefnet that after Sept. 11, "there was this hoo-rah around Islam being a peaceful religion — but then you start having suicide bombers, and people start saying, 'Wait a minute, something doesn't add up here.'"
In the midst of this verbal battle, one Muslim group in New York called him "bigoted, hateful and divisive."
But Graham is only the most significant leader of a widespread and rapidly growing effort by conservative American Christians to criticize Islam — and attempt to convert its followers. Since 1990, the number of missionaries in Islamic countries has quadrupled. Mission experts estimate they have spoken to or given Christian material to at least 334 million people in that time. Groups such as Youth With a Mission and the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board sponsor two-week jaunts to places like Kyrgyzstan to convert Muslims to Christianity.
Five years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention reorganized its International Missions Board to focus on the part of the world where Muslims live. That year, the Convention published a prayer guide for use when praying for the conversion of Muslims. They followed with similar prayer guides aimed at Hindus and Jews two years later. Two years ago, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary even created a master's degree program to help students minister to Muslims.
Donna Derr, an official for Church World Service, a mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox aid group, finds this activity worrisome.
She said the 2,000-year-old Christian churches in Iraq — whose members are a tiny minority in a vast Muslim population — have worked extraordinarily hard in the last decade to "develop their place" in the community. She said Christians and Muslims are working together in a way they never did before.
"I would hate to see the tenuous balance that has been created made unbalanced by the entry into Iraq by peoples who may have less sensitivity," she said. "Our military activity has created one chasm. We don't want to see our humanitarian assistance create another chasm."
But Graham said Samaritan's Purse has worked closely with Christians in Iraq since 1991. He first went to Baghdad 30 years ago. "I know exactly what the situation is, and I've briefed my people very well on it," he said.
Opinions of Islam
At this point, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, American Christians should stop worrying about whether Muslims think America is anti-Islam.
"What doesn't look that way to the Muslim world?" Besides, he said, "they're the ones declaring holy war, not us. They're the ones trying to convert people by force. They're the ones killing people in the name of religion, not us."
But Hooper, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said evangelical groups bent on converting Muslims often go into countries emphasizing humanitarian concerns to obscure their proselytizing agenda. "They go after them when they're most vulnerable and hope they can get them to leave their faith. It's a very despicable practice."
He warned this could undermine the Bush administration's efforts to portray the war as a move toward liberation, not a war against Islam. "If it becomes generally known it's going to be a public relations disaster for the Bush administration," he said.
Even Michael Cromartie, director of evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an ally of evangelical groups, cautioned that charities like Samaritan's purse "need to be soberly aware of the perception problems this might bring in light of the geopolitical situation."