Nov. 18 —, 2002 -- The nation's leading evangelical Christians have been thundering against Islam, both from the pulpit and on television.
"Adolph Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse," the 700 Club'sPat Robertson said recently.
"I think Mohammed was a terrorist," said conservative preacher Jerry Falwell in a televised interview.
While only 33 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent ABCNEWS/Beliefnet poll had an unfavorable opinion of Islam, that number has risen nine percent over the last 10 months. The number of people who say mainstream Islam encourages violence is also up nine points and those who say Islam fails to teach respect for other religions increased 13 percent.
The harsh opinions voiced by some conservative Christian leaders recently appears to amplify such sentiments.
"This man was an absolute wild-eyed fanatic," said Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. "He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam? They're carrying out Islam!"
The Rev. Jerry Vines said at a Southern Baptist convention, "Islam was founded by Mohammed, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, and his last one was a 9-year-old girl."
And televangelist Jimmy Swaggart said, "You know what we ought to do? We ought to take every single Muslim student in every college in this nation and ship them back to where they came from."
Bush Administration Responds
For months, President Bush, who frequently says Islam is a religion of peace, declined to condemn these statements. Until now. A few days ago, he said, "Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans."
Secretary of State Colin Powell followed suit. "This kind of hatred must be rejected," he said. "This kind of language must be spoken out against."
Critics suggest the administration waited to condemn the statements from leading evangelists because they didn't want to alienate a key constituency before the midterm elections. The White House denies the claim.
What is clear is that evangelical attacks on Islam risk further alienating key Arab allies as the United States prepares for a possible war against Iraq.
Falwell's comments about Mohammed became a hot topic of discussion on the Arab satellite television station al Jazeera, and a protest erupted in India, leading to a riot that killed five people. Falwell has since apologized for his comment.
Swaggart, who now says he regrets some of his recent comments, also says he doesn't worry about creating diplomatic problems with Arab countries.
"I feel like it's my responsibility and my obligation to stand up and to say that which I believe to be the truth," he said. "They do the same thing."
Critics say evangelists are attacking Islam because it's a good way to drum up passions and donations among their supporters. Evangelical leaders say they're speaking out of conviction, and they'll keep doing so no matter what they president says.