June 12, 2002 St. Louis, June 12--Top Southern Baptist leaders Tuesday stood behind a former president of the denomination who called the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, "a demon-possessed pedophile." The Rev. Jerry Vines of Jacksonville, Fla., made the remarks in a sermon Monday night to the Pastors' Conference, preceding the denomination's annual meeting here.

Expressing concern about religious pluralism, Vines said: "And I will tell you Allah is not Jehovah, either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist that'll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people." Vines was president of the convention from 1989 to 1991.

On Tuesday current convention President James Merritt of Snellville, Ga., backed Vines, saying "historically, he is on solid ground." Muhammad married a girl of 6 and consummated the marriage at 9, Merritt said. "In my book, that's a pedophile." Christians and Muslims have "fundamental differences," Merritt said. "The God they worship is a God of works and a God of fear. The God we worship is a God of hope and grace and love and mercy."

The Southern Baptists' president-elect, the Rev. Jack Graham, also supported Vines' position, warning believers to "look carefully at who they're following and what they believe."

An angry Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the Baptist leaders' remarks "completely irresponsible" and "deeply offensive." "This hands a victory to terrorists who want to drive a wedge between Christians, Muslims and Jews," he said. "This could harm America's interests worldwide."

Of the pedophilia charge, Hooper said: "The prophet Muhammad didn't do anything not in accord with the norms of the time."

The discussion of Islam came as missionaries handed out green ribbons in the exhibit hall to encourage Baptists to pray for Muslims' conversion. Elaine Meaders lived among Muslims in Southeast Asia. Meaders said she was "saddened we haven't been able to more effectively share the Gospel to make difference. They need to know God and God's love."

In Washington, Hooper said the Baptist leadership's comments on Islam could hurt missionary work. "It doesn't speak well of your own beliefs," he said, "when you sink to such depths to slander another faith."

The sectarian rhetoric was reminiscent of 1980, when the convention's then-president, the Rev. Bailey Smith, famously declared that "God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews."

Some had expected the day to be dominated by confrontation between the Baptists and Soulforce, an interdenominational gay-rights group. In his last presidential sermon to the convention on Tuesday morning, Merritt, 49, was hitting his stride in a rousing message filled with military imagery when a dozen Soulforce protesters called to him one or two at a time. Merritt looked down as one protester was moved away, saying, "We face a secular culture, like this lady right here, that is becoming increasingly strident and militant in its anti-Christian, anti-truth, anti-God mentality." His fellow Southern Baptists applauded.

Thirty-seven protesters outside the convention hall were charged with misdemeanors. The dozen arrested inside face felony charnges.

The 8,600 "messengers" to the convention unanimously elected Graham, 51, of Plano, Texas, to replace Merritt, who is completing his second one-year term and was ineligible for re-election. The Southern Baptists conclude their meeting here today.

In a late addition to the agenda, President Bush addressed the meeting via television from the White House. Bush said, "You and I share common commitments. We believe in fostering a culture of life, and that marriage and family are sacred institutions that should be preserved and strengthened. We believe that a life is a creation, not a commodity, and that our children are gifts to be loved and protected, not products to be designed and manufactured by human cloning."

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