Franklin Graham at Ireland’s Celebration of Hope in April 2008 in Belfast. (Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

More than 30 prominent Christian leaders in the Vancouver area, including the Vancouver Catholic archbishop and evangelical leaders, issued a public letter Friday expressing concerns about evangelist Franklin Graham ahead of a rally he plans to hold there next weekend.

In the letter, the leaders decried Graham’s “contentious and confrontational political and social rhetoric.” More than 25,000 people are expected to attend Graham’s evangelistic “festival” March 3 to 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Graham, who has been controversial even among evangelicals in recent years, read from the Bible at President Trump’s inauguration. Though he never officially endorsed Trump, he was seen as a key ally who declared after the president’s win that “God’s hand intervened” in the election. He is the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse.

Graham’s rallies are similar to the evangelistic “crusades” his 98-year-old father would hold. Billy Graham, who met Trump at his 95th birthday party in 2013, served as a pastor to several presidents. The elderly evangelist was also famous for his ecumenism, or emphasis on unity among churches, though he drew criticism from fundamentalist Christians and mainline Protestants.

The letter published Friday seemed to suggest a fracturing of Christian unity in Vancouver over the younger evangelist’s plans.

“[Graham] has made disparaging and uncharitable remarks about Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community, while portraying the election, administration and policies of U.S. President Donald Trump as intrinsically aligned with the Christian church,” the letter says. “Such blending of politics and religion is dangerous.”

The letter was signed by Vancouver Catholic Archbishop Michael Miller, Vancouver-area Anglican Bishop Melissa Skelton and Ken Shigematsu, pastor at Vancouver’s Tenth Church, a popular megachurch for evangelicals. Shigematsu, who has cited Graham’s uncle Leighton Ford as his mentor, was on Graham’s festival committee before stepping down earlier this month.

“Franklin Graham’s advocating a ban on Muslims entering the United States is at odds with our church’s vision and ethos,” he wrote to festival organizers.

He and other leaders urged the organizers to pick someone else to speak at the festival.

“The intent isn’t so much is to denounce Franklin Graham as a person, but it is to present a gospel that is more explicitly inclusive,” Shigematsu said in a phone call on Friday. “Christians shouldn’t be known for what we’re against but what we’re for.”

Billy Graham, who was close with President Richard Nixon, said in 2011 that if he could go back in time, he would have stayed out of politics.

“[Billy Graham] commanded really wide respect. He tended to steer clear of partisan politics,” Shigematsu said. “He was able to inspire a broader base of support.”

The group includes people who would be considered evangelical or at least friendly with evangelicals, including Darrell Johnson of Regent College, Rev. Geoff Chapman of University Chapel and Rev. Mike Hsu and Rev. Mark Swanson of Grace Vancouver Church, which is part of the Presbyterian Church of America.

The move comes after Vancouver’s mayor and other city officials earlier this week asked festival organizers to drop Graham, though the group says the letter was in draft form.

The mayor is concerned about the “extraordinarily derogative” comments the pastor has made, especially after an attack on a Quebec City mosque, Councillor Tim Stevenson said, according to the Globe and Mail.

“Why would they have invited this person in the first place, knowing that he’s said these things about Muslims, knowing that he’s said these things about the LGBTQ community?” said Stevenson, who was the first openly gay person ordained in a Christian denomination in Canada.

The Vancouver Sun called the letter from Christian leaders “unprecedented,” and the festival has already divided Christian leaders in the city.

According to the group, they sent Graham the letter earlier this week, and he responded saying he would avoid controversial topics, but he “neither retracted nor sufficiently addressed the harmful statements to which we drew his attention.”

The Christian leaders cited three specific comments from Graham:

  • All Muslims should be banned from the United States because Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion” at war with the Christian West.
  • LGBTQ+ persons should not be allowed to enter churches or even enter as guests into Christian homes, because “the Enemy [Satan] wants to devour our homes.”
  • The outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election was due to “the hand of God,” giving the impression that the Christian church as an institution is partisanly aligned with an administration and its policies.

“Such blending of politics and religion is dangerous. First, it comes close to aligning the power of the church with the power of the state,” the letter states. “Second, it does so by seeming to develop a false religious narrative to support an exalted and troubling American nationalism. Third, it can divide Christians who do not view things the same way as Mr. Graham. Fourth, we are concerned that some of the policies of the Trump administration have introduced unprecedented structural shifts that put the most vulnerable in our world at risk of greater harm. These policies may jeopardize refugees and reinforce prejudice.”

Graham could not be reached for comment on Friday. A spokesman for Graham provided a statement the evangelist made earlier this week that says 327 churches in the Vancouver area are supporting the festival.

“My message will be the simple Gospel message: a timeless message of God’s hope, love and redemption for all people regardless of ethnicity, age or gender identity – Christ died for all. If anyone is searching for answers, wondering if their life has meaning and questioning if they are loved, I will have good news to share,” Graham said in the statement. “Politics, policies, economics and commerce are significant matters, but for these three days we will come together in Vancouver to focus on the most important thing of all: God’s love for each and every one of us.”

Graham’s Facebook page, which has 5 million fans, has become a regular source of controversy. Earlier this month, he compared “fake news” to Jesus and the Pharisees. He also called Planned Parenthood “a Hitleristic organization.” Graham said he planned to preach to Puerto Ricans using an immigration analogy, comparing it to heaven and that “God uses extreme vetting.” (Legally, Puerto Ricans who move to the United States are considered migrating internally, not immigrating, since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.)

This piece has been updated to include comments from Ken Shigematsu and a statement from Franklin Graham.