SYDNEY, Australia, Feb. 1 - A sign saying "Jesus Loves Osama" outside some churches in Australia drew criticism from the prime minister and other religious leaders on Thursday, though they conceded it was probably true according to Christian beliefs.


One sign outside the Central Baptist Church in downtown Sydney also had a smaller footnote saying "Jesus said: `Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'" Several other churches in the city had similar signs urging prayers for Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida terrorist leader, according to local media.


A photograph of the sign was published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper on Thursday, prompting debate about whether it was a suitable message.


Prime Minister John Howard said something else would have been better.


"I understand the Christian motivation of the Baptist church," Howard told reporters. "But I hope they will understand that a lot of Australians, including many Australian Christians, will think that the prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere."


Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen said churches that posted the sign were obviously trying to illustrate Christian teaching that God loves everybody, no matter how evil their sins, but that he found the sign "a bit misleading" and potentially offensive.


"There is a truth in it," Jensen told the Southern Cross Broadcasting network. But, "what we've got to say is, `Jesus doesn't approve of Osama.' It makes it sounds like, `Oh, Osama's doing the right thing.'"


Officials from the Central Baptist Church were not immediately available to comment, but the Telegraph quoted spokeswoman Hy Lam as saying, "Osama is the head of terrorism. We are saying that Jesus Christ loves everyone in the world, even this man. ... All we are doing is sharing the gospel."

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