Leading evangelical Christians, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, are supporting a prominent Southern Baptist preacher's condemnation of the prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile."
Jewish leaders and mainline Protestant groups, on the other hand, have joined Muslims in protesting the remarks by the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
The controversy has also embroiled the White House. President Bush, who has repeatedly declared that the U.S. war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, praised the Southern Baptist Convention last week for its tradition of tolerance.
Vines, pastor of the 25,000-member First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., spoke to fellow ministers on June 10, the eve of the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in St. Louis. He told several thousand delegates that people promoting "religious pluralism" are responsible for many of the country's problems.
"They would have us believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity. Christianity was founded by the virgin-born son of God, Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, the last one of which was a 9-year-old girl," Vines said.
He added that the Muslim deity is not the same as the God worshiped by Christians. "And I will tell you Allah is not Jehovah, either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist," he said.
The following day, Bush addressed the SBC meeting via satellite, extolling Baptists' "extraordinary influence" on American history. "Baptists were among the earliest champions of religious tolerance and freedom," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that "the president's views are very clear. The president believes Islam is a religion that teaches peace. The president believes in religious tolerance and respects people of all faiths."
The Southern Baptist Convention, a coalition of 42,000 churches with 16 million members, became increasingly fundamentalist in the 1980s and has antagonized numerous religious groups over the last quarter century.
In 1980, one of its former presidents declared that God does not hear the prayers of Jews. In 1988, the convention said salvation was found only through Jesus Christ. In 1998, it said a wife should "submit herself graciously" to the leadership of her husband. And in 1999, it published guides to praying on Muslim, Hindu and Jewish holy days for people of those faiths to become Christians.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Vines's "deplorable" comments were "not surprising coming from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has a track record of denigrating and delegitimizing other religions."
George Wayne Smith, a former Southern Baptist who is now the Episcopal bishop of Missouri, said Vines's remarks violated the Christian imperative to "love one another and to break down the barriers that separate us."
Vines declined through spokeswoman Susan Tucker Johnson to explain his remarks. In recent days, however, several evangelical leaders have stepped forward to support him.
"If you want to raise the ire of the mainstream press and the swarm of politically-correct organizations in this nation, just criticize Islam [as Dr. Vines learned]," Falwell wrote to subscribers of his "Falwell Confidential" e-mail newsletter.
Falwell called Vines "my friend" and said the Jacksonville pastor's remarks were derived from a book, "Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs" by Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, brothers who were raised as Muslims and became Christians in 1982.
Both now teach at Baptist colleges, Ergun Caner at Criswell College in Dallas and Emir Caner at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. They cite passages from the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad, as evidence that the seventh-century founder of Islam at one time believed he was under demonic influence and that he married a 9-year-old, Aisha.
The newly elected president of the Southern Baptists, the Rev. Jack Graham, also defended Vines's speech as "accurate" but sought to shift the focus. "God loves Muslim people," he told his home congregation in Plano, Tex., on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. "Our desire is to serve them and share in any way we can our faith with them."
Volume 7, Book 62, Number 64 of the Sahih Bukhari edition of the Hadith says, "The Prophet married [Aisha] when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old." But Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said many Islamic scholars interpret that passage to mean Aisha was 16 when she was betrothed to Muhammad and 19 when they wed.
"Muslims see the prophet Muhammad as the ultimate example of moral behavior, so they really see this kind of attack on the prophet as gut-churning," he said. If Southern Baptists "want to preach love," he added, "why does it come out in such hate-filled terms?"