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| September 21, 2006

Driving north on South Reserve Street on Tuesday, several Indy readers were appalled by what they saw on New Life Worship Center’s marquee: Bold block letters beneath a large cross read, “MUSLIMS ARE PROVING THE POPE RIGHT.”

Incensed and deeply offended, readers called us.

Curious, we called Pastor Don Kelley of New Life.

“Well, I thought that sounded better than, ‘The Pope has cojones,’” Kelley says of his admittedly provocative message.

The message, Kelley says, refers to Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks at a German university, wherein the pontiff quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who described Islam as a religion “spread by the sword.” The pope’s comments—taken out of context—have touched off an angry worldwide Muslim backlash. In Somalia, an Italian nun was gunned down as she left a hospital; her death has been widely attributed to the furor over the pope’s remarks. Islamic protesters in Iraq burned the pope in effigy. Radical Muslims firebombed churches in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and some Muslim clerics have called for followers to hunt down the pope and his followers. Al-Qaida In Iraq warned the pope that its war against Christianity and the West will continue “until Islam takes over the world.”

The uproar comes on the heels of a Danish newspaper’s Muhammad cartoon controversy, in which Islamic protests and riots last winter claimed more than 100 lives worldwide.

So Kelley isn’t going to apologize for his sign’s latest message. In fact, he hopes the sign provokes passers by to think hard about nature of Islam.

“The backlash is really proof positive that [Muslims] are indeed violent,” Kelley says. “What’s happened is that because of the violence and fear of violent extremists, people are afraid, and they’re working hard to be politically correct and not say anything in the least to be interpreted as bigoted or insensitive or intolerant…but at some point it’s valuable to call it for what it is.”

It’s certainly darkly ironic, at least, that certain factions of the Muslim world see violence as an appropriate response to accusations that their religion is a violent one. Rather than engage in civil discourse and debate, some Muslims have chosen to burn churches. But it also strikes us as just a bit too easy for Kelley to paint with such a broad brush from his pulpit in a culturally monotonous Western Montana town, home to only a handful of Muslims. His message may indeed be provocative, but coming from a pastor who admits he’s never read Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and emerging from a Christian tradition with no shortage of religiously inspired bloodshed in its history, and aimed as it seems to be at exacerbating and localizing the religious and cultural tensions that are wrecking the Middle East and threatening to divide loyalties at home, we also think it’s deeply irresponsible.

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