WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army on Thursday withdrew an invitation to a Christian evangelist to speak at a Pentagon prayer service next month following an outcry over his references to Islam as a violent religion.
Franklin Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, said in a statement he regretted the Army’s decision and would keep praying for U.S. troops.
The invitation prompted a harsh reaction, including from a prominent U.S. Muslim group that said Graham’s appearance before Pentagon personnel would send the wrong message as the United States fights wars in Muslim countries.
In an interview last year with CNN, Graham said “true Islam” was too violent to be practiced in the United States.
“You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries,” he said.
“I don’t agree with the teachings of Islam and I find it to be a very violent religion.”
The interview can be seen here
The Army said it did not invite Graham to the May 6 event organized through the Pentagon Chaplain’s office. The invitation was instead extended by the private, Colorado-based National Day of Prayer Task Force.
“Once the Army leadership became aware that Reverand Graham was speaking at this event, we immediately recognized it as problematic,” said Colonel Tom Collins, an Army spokesman.
“The bottom line here is that his presence would be inappropriate. His past statements are not consistent with the multi-faith emphasis and inclusiveness of this event.”
Graham acknowledged the decision, saying in a statement: “I will continue to pray that God will give them guidance, wisdom and protection as they serve this great country.”
The National Day of Prayer Task Force called the Pentagon’s decision part of an “assault on religious freedom and people of faith” driven by groups including the government and media.
“The Pentagon, representing the most powerful military in the world, melted like butter and withdrew the invitation,” it said, citing opposition by “a small group of naysayers.”
President Barack Obama and the military have repeatedly sought to assure the Muslim world that the U.S. fight against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be viewed as a war against Islam.
Former President George W. Bush heightened those concerns shortly after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 when he referred to his war on terrorism as a “crusade,” a remark critics warned raised images of Christian knights attacking Muslim cities during the Middle Ages.
Franklin Graham gave the benediction at Bush’s 2001 presidential inauguration and famously declared after the September 11 attacks: “We’re not attacking Islam but Islam attacked us.” He called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.”
This year, the military discovered a U.S. arms manufacturer had embossed biblical citations on rifle scopes sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. The manufacturer halted the practice.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which also voiced outrage over the rifle scopes, wrote a letter of protest earlier this week to Defense Secretary Robert Gates over Graham’s invitation.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the invitation was damaging to the U.S. image.
“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,” said the group’s national executive director, Nihad Awad.
Editing by Chris Wilson