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Graham's good intentions won't overshadow his controversy

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2003

The Rev. Franklin Graham's heart is in the right place -- he wants to alleviate the human suffering in postwar Iraq -- but the outspoken Christian evangelist should stay out of that largely Muslim country for reasons that should be obvious to him. He is the son of and successor to the Rev. Billy Graham, the world's most famous Christian evangelist, a friend of President George W. Bush, and a prominent religious figure in his own right who, after the 9/11 attacks, called Islam "a very wicked and evil" religion. Even an invitation to Graham to lead a Good Friday service at the Pentagon stirred controversy and offended Muslim employees who wrote a letter asking that the invitation be withdrawn.

The humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people are great, but Graham should leave relief efforts to others, including the International Red Cross and the United Nations. The last thing we need is Christian relief workers pouring into Iraq with food in one hand and a Bible in the other. That would play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who would have the Iraqi people believe the United States invaded their land not to liberate them but to convert them to Christianity. We have enough problems in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq without Graham and other Christian groups aggravating religious and political tensions in that wounded country.

Graham founded and heads the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse, which has an admirable record of providing humanitarian assistance in impoverished and war-torn countries around the world. Its relief workers often operate in dangerous situations where their own lives are at risk. Samaritan's Purse relies not on government funding but on Christian charity and volunteers to carry out its work, which combines aid with proselytizing. It has been recognized as one of the most efficiently run religious charities because it spends only a fraction of the money it raises on administrative costs.

The problem is not the good work Samaritan's Purse does around the world. It's the harsh things Graham has said about Islam. He has called it "a greater threat than anyone's willing to speak." In his latest book, the evangelist writes that Christianity and Islam are enemies in a "classic struggle that will end with the second coming of Christ," and that "the war against terrorism is just another conflict between evil and The Name (Jesus Christ)." His attempts to explain his comments have done little to ease the resentments his words have provoked among Muslims at home and abroad.

Samaritan's Purse has plenty to do in other countries where Graham's criticism of Islam and his close relationship to the Bush family don't offend people's religious or political sensibilities. Postwar Iraq is too fragile and U.S. responsibilities too great to risk a Muslim backlash against Graham's well-intentioned but controversial relief mission.

The Bush administration has given Samaritan's Purse approval to operate in occupied Iraq -- a mistake, in my opinion -- and the organization has a small army of volunteers massed in Jordan ready to roll across the border into Iraq: Americans, Jordanians, Canadians, Lebanese and Iraqis, among others. Graham says Samaritan's Purse has carried out other projects in Iraq over the years, and he doesn't understand why its intentions are being questioned this time.

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Graham wrote: "In Iraq, as is the case wherever we work, Samaritan's Purse will offer physical assistance to those who need it, with no strings attached. We don't have to preach in order to be a Christian relief organization. Sometimes the best preaching we can do is simply being there with a cup of cold water, exhibiting Christ's spirit of serving others."

Graham added that he doubts that Iraqis in need of food or emergency medical care would be interested in debating faith-based relief assistance. He may have a point, but after Iraqis are fed and their medical needs are taken care of, how will they feel about the Good Samaritans who also want to convert them to Christianity?

I don't mean to be unduly critical of Franklin Graham. In some ways, I admire his ministry more than I do his father's. Billy Graham has said his calling was to preach the Gospel in all corners of the globe, and he has done that. His son, who is also president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has felt the need to do more than just preach. He also has offered a hand of compassion to the suffering among us -- the hungry, the sick and the poor. He has combined his faith with good deeds, which I believe is what Christians are called to do. Franklin Graham understands perhaps better than his father what President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address: that God's work here on earth must truly be our own.

I hope Franklin Graham keeps doing God's work. But not in Iraq, not now.

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