Attorney General John D. Ashcroft yesterday cast the government's war on terrorism in religious terms, arguing that the campaign is rooted in faith in God and urging Christians, Jews and Muslims to unite in the effort.
Contrasting "the way of God and the way of the terrorists," Ashcroft's speech to a group of Christian broadcasters in Nashville included some of the most explicitly religiousremarks from the attorney general since he was confirmed amid controversy over his views more than a year ago.
"Civilized people -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator," Ashcroft said in prepared remarks released by the Justice Department. "Civilized people of all religious faiths are called to the defense of His creation. We are a nation called to defend freedom -- a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God."
Ashcroft, the son and grandson of Pentecostal ministers, has not shied from overt public displays of religious faith. The attorney general holds daily prayer meetings in his office at Justice Department headquarters in Washington and has made several appearances at Christian events since taking office.
Yesterday's remarks revived criticism from civil liberties advocates alarmed by Ashcroft's religious views and did little to quell complaints from Arab American and Muslim leaders about a controversial statement about Islam attributed to Ashcroft by a syndicated columnist.
Cal Thomas quoted Ashcroft as saying that "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." Ashcroft said in a statement last week that the reported remarks "do not accurately reflect what I believe I said."
"Rather than allaying our concerns, these comments only raise more concerns," James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said yesterday. "It is fine that he is a man of faith, but the attorney general, who represents all the people, seems to be projecting himself as a religious leader."
Barry W. Lynn, who is president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and testified against Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings, said that "at a minimum, it seems to increase the perception that [Ashcroft] cannot separate his religious agenda from his public office."
Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden said yesterday's speech was intended as a multifaith appeal for unity in the war on terrorism.
"The attorney general will generally make comments that are appropriate to his audience," Dryden said. "The message is that we all need to get along in order to fight a common enemy."
The broadcasters group said Ashcroft had agreed to speak at the convention after President Bush canceled an appearance to travel to Asia. In a speech peppered with biblical citations, Ashcroft said "the conflict that confronts us is not Christian versus Muslim or Muslim versus Jew.
"This is not a conflict based in religion," he said. "It is a conflict between good and evil. And as President Bush has reminded us, we know that God is not neutral between the two."
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