An outspoken evangelical Christian leader who has called Islam a “wicked religion” plans to bring relief aid to post-war Iraq amid early signs that his efforts will not be appreciated by American Muslim leaders.

Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham, says the main objective of his group, Samaritan’s Purse, will be to assist Iraqi refugees and others who are displaced, sick and hungry.

Franklin Graham with relief team aiding Kosovar refugees in 1999

“We realize we’re in an Arab country and we just can’t go out and preach,” Graham said in an interview with

However, he added, “I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son. … We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian, I do this in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, warned that evangelical groups use humanitarian concerns as a cover for their true motive – to convert Muslims to Christianity.

“They go after them when they’re most vulnerable and hope they can get them to leave their faith,” he told Beliefnet. “It’s a very despicable practice.”

Hooper believes Graham’s effort could undermine President Bush’s attempt to convince the Muslim world that the war is not against Islam.

“If it becomes generally known, it’s going to be a public relations disaster for the Bush administration,” he said.

The Muslim leader, who has said he wants the U.S. eventually to become a Muslim nation, said, “Franklin Graham obviously thinks it is a war against Islam.”

“This is a guy who gave the invocation at President Bush’s inauguration and believes Islam is a wicked faith,” Hooper said. “And he’s going to go into Iraq in the wake of an invading army and convert people to Christianity? Nothing good is coming of that.”

‘Very evil and wicked’

Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Graham called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion” in an interview about his latest book. In “The Name,” he wrote, “Islam – unlike Christianity – has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths.”

In an interview last year with Beliefnet, he said, “I believe the Quran teaches violence, not peace,” and, in an indirect criticism of President Bush, he said that after the Sept. 11 attacks “there was this hoo-rah around Islam being a peaceful religion – but then you start having suicide bombers, and people start saying, ‘Wait a minute, something doesn’t add up here.'”

Graham explained to Beliefnet this week that “when people ask, I let them know I don’t believe in their God. But I respect their right to believe whatever they want to believe.”

He said his group is in daily contact with U.S. government agencies in Amman, Jordan, about its plans, Beliefnet reported.

Graham insists he would not “go in and participate in something that would embarrass our administration.”

He added, however, “We don’t work for the U.S. government, so we don’t get our permission from them.”

Mainline church groups say they fear evangelicals will stir up tensions between the majority Muslim population in Iraq and the tiny Christian minority that has worked hard in the last decade to “develop their place” in the community.

“I would hate to see the tenuous balance that has been created made unbalanced by the entry into Iraq by peoples who may have less sensitivity,” Donna Derr, an official for Church World Service, a mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox aid group.

“Our military activity has created one chasm,” she told Beliefnet. “We don’t want to see our humanitarian assistance create another chasm.”

However, Graham, noting that he first went to Baghdad 30 years ago, said Samaritan’s Purse has worked closely with Christians in Iraq since 1991.

“I know exactly what the situation is, and I’ve briefed my people very well on it,” he told Beliefnet.

The Southern Baptist Convention also has plans to bring humanitarian aid to Iraq.

Richard Land, president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, believes American Christians should stop worrying about whether Muslims think America is anti-Islam.

“What doesn’t look that way to the Muslim world?”

Besides, he said, “they’re the ones declaring holy war, not us. They’re the ones trying to convert people by force. They’re the ones killing people in the name of religion, not us.”

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