DENVER – The pastor of a church in Denver touched off a storm of criticism Wednesday when he used the sign in front of his church for the message: "Jews Killed The Lord Jesus."
Pastor Maurice Gordon of Lovingway United Pentecostal Church timed his message to coincide with the release of the controversial Mel Gibson (search) movie, "The Passion of the Christ," (search) which some have criticized as anti-Semitic and others have hailed as powerfully portraying the Crucifixion of Christ.
Gordon told The Associated Press in a phone interview that he was inspired by the intense discussion the movie has generated about who is responsible for the Crucifixion.
"I had been listening to debate back and forth on talk radio about who really did it," Gordon said. "What I did, right or wrong, was to give a citation from the Apostle Paul."
A United Pentecostal Church International official disavowed Gordon's sign and said it did not reflect the group's position.
"We regret any offense his actions have caused," said the Rev. B.E. Hale, the group's Colorado District director.
The church is located on Colorado Boulevard, one of the city's busiest thoroughfares.
Ami Ship of Denver drove by the church after hearing about the sign in a class at the Denver Campus for Jewish Education.She said said she stopped at the church, knocked on the doors and called on her cell phone.
"No one would answer the door or the phone," said Ship, who is Jewish. "I just wanted to talk to them and see if they would take the sign down."
She decided not to wait for a response. Ship bought a ladder and a tarp at a store across the street, intending to cover the sign. When that didn't work, she removed the word "Jews" from the message board instead and left the letters at the church.
"I'm raising four Jewish little girls and I would like the community to be a safe place for all religions," Ship said. "I felt it was anti-Semitic, incorrect, and a cowardly thing to do."
Church members later Wednesday changed the message to "God so loved the world that he gave -- and He's still giving."
The first message prompted a response Wednesday night from the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which urged Christian community leaders in Denver to rebuke the Lovingway church for posting the sign.
"The Jewish people has suffered from the libel of deicide for nearly two thousand years," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "We continue to look to our Christian neighbors and friends to rebuke those who would pass off this canard as theology."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations in the world, with more than 400,000 member families in the United States.
The Colorado Anti-Defamation League and the Colorado Council of Churches expressed outrage in interviews with Denver television stations.
"For 2,000 years, anti-Semitism in the Western world has been fueled by four words: 'The Jews killed Christ,"' said Bruce DeBoskey of the Anti-Defamation League.
DeBoskey said he was upset that Gordon had chosen to spread a message of "divisiveness and ultimately bigotry and hate" at a time when the ADL and others were trying to bring Jews and Christians closer together.
"I would hope that they would hear the outcry not just of the Jewish community, but of the Christian community as well, that this is not a true representation of the gospel of love and grace of Jesus Christ," said the Rev. James Ryan of the Colorado Council of Churches.
A small crowd of protesters gathered outside the church Wednesday night. Among them was former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, founder of Promise Keepers, a men's Christian organization.
McCartney said he believes Jews are "God's chosen people."
"I stand with them. I'm tired of the oppression of the Jew," McCartney told KCNC-TV.
Gordon, who has been pastor of the church for 29 years, said he never intended to leave the sign up for long. He said he expected to get some calls about the message, but that he didn't expect the threats demanding removal of the sign.
"You only want to do this maybe once in a lifetime," Gordon said. "At least hopefully it will get people to go back and read the fine print in the Bible."