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Franklin Graham Regrets Army's Decision to Rescind Invite to Pentagon Prayer Service

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In this Sunday, May 24, 2009 file photo, Franklin Graham prepares to give the invocation before the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 auto race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. (AP)

Evangelist Franklin Graham said Thursday that he regrets the Army's decision to rescind its invitation to him for the Pentagon's National Day of Prayer service on May 6, but expressed "strong support" for the U.S. military.

An Army spokesman confirmed to Fox News that the invitation to Graham to be honorary chairman at the event was rescinded amid complaints from Muslim members of the military about his description of Islam as an evil religion.

The Army spokesman said the event will go forward but without the National Day of Prayer Task Force participating.

"I regret that the Army felt it was necessary to rescind their invitation to the National Day of Prayer Task Force to participate in the Pentagon's special prayer service," Graham said in a written statement.

"I want to expresses my strong support for the United States military and all our troops," he added. "I will continue to pray that God will give them guidance, wisdom and protection as they serve this great country."

Earlier Thursday, Graham stuck by his remarks about Islam, including that Muslims are "enslaved" by their religion, 

Franklin, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, told Fox News that he loves Muslim people and wants them to know that God loves them, even if they can be saved only through Jesus Christ.

"I want them to know that they don't have to die in a car bomb, don't have to die in some kind of holy war to be accepted by God. But it's through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone," Graham said. 

Graham said said he loves the Muslim people, just not their religion -- which he called "horrid" for its restrictions on women.

"I love the people of Islam but their religion, I do not agree with their religion at all. And if you look at what the religion does just to women, women alone, it is just horrid. And so yes, I speak out for women. I speak out for people that live under Islam, that are enslaved by Islam and I want them to know that they can be free," he said.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Graham said Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion." In a later op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Graham wrote that he did not believe Muslims were evil because of their faith, but "as a minister ... I believe it is my responsibility to speak out against the terrible deeds that are committed as a result of Islamic teaching."

Army spokesman Gary Tallman told Fox News on Wednesday that Graham's "presence at the event may be taken by some as inappropriate for a government agency."

"As the executive agent of the Pentagon chaplain's office, Army leadership determined it needed further review," he said.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation raised the objection to the appearance, citing Graham's past remarks about Islam, in a letter sent Monday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the foundation, said the invitation offended Muslim employees at the Pentagon because Graham never retracted or apologized for his description of Islam as evil. Weinstein said the invitation would endanger American troops by stirring up Muslim extremists.

Army Col. Tom Collins said the invitation wasn't from the Pentagon but from the Colorado-based National Day of Prayer Task Force, which works with the Pentagon chaplain's office on the prayer event.

The task force organizes Christian events for the National Day of Prayer. Collins said neither Army Secretary John McHugh nor Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. was aware of the invitation.

After Graham's appearance, the Council of American-Islamic Relations issued a call for supporters to petition the Pentagon to drop Graham.

"To have an individual who calls Islam evil and claims Muslims are enslaved by their faith speak at the Pentagon sends entirely the wrong message at a time when hundreds of thousands of our nation's military personnel are currently stationed in Muslim countries," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. "Franklin Graham's appearance has the potential to harm unit cohesion and morale through the promotion of distorted, intolerant and divisive views within military ranks."

Task force chairwoman Shirley Dobson said in a written statement that U.S. leaders have called for a day of prayer during times of crisis since 1775, but the tradition is under attack.

"Enough is enough," said Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson. "We at the National Day of Prayer Task Force ask the American people to defend the right to pray in the Pentagon."

She called on President Obama to appeal a ruling by a federal judge in Wisconsin last week that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional because it amounts to a call for religious action. The judge did not bar any observances until all appeals are exhausted.

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Weinstein objected to the working relationship between the Pentagon chaplain's office and the task force, saying the chaplains have effectively endorsed the task force by using its materials and routinely inviting its honorary chairman to speak at the Pentagon.

Weinstein said that amounts to preferential treatment in violation of Defense Department rules.

Collins said the working relationship has been reviewed by Pentagon lawyers and passed legal scrutiny.

"We are an all-inclusive military. We hold observances throughout the year. This one happens to be a Christian-themed event," Collins said.

Graham, who has a son fighting in Afghanistan, said the upcoming Day of Prayer event is not about "Islam versus Christianity."  

"We're in war. And we need to pray for our military. We need to pray for our president and all those in authority. That's what the National Day of Prayer is all about," he said.

Graham is president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian international relief organization in Boone, N.C., and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, N.C.

Fox News' Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.