Pastor's newspaper ad fans religious tensions in St. Cloud

Rev. Dennis Campbell
The Rev. Dennis Campbell, pastor of Granite City Baptist Church, runs the ad in the St. Cloud Times twice a month called, "Pastor, I have a question."
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

A pastor has upset Muslims and Christians with a paid newspaper advertisement that questions whether Islam threatens the United States.

Other religious leaders have criticized the advertisement as fearmongering. They say it has contributed to a tense climate in St. Cloud, which in recent months has struggled with racial and cultural tension.

Some Somali high school students complained white students harassed them, a white man posted anti-Muslim cartoons on telephone poles around town, and another man threatened on Craigslist to hurt Somalis at a local dance.

The Rev. Dennis Campbell, pastor of Granite City Baptist Church, runs the ad in the St. Cloud Times twice a month called, "Pastor, I have a question." A similar program airs on a local radio station every Sunday morning. He discusses a variety of issues from the Bible, such as salvation.

One of Campell's most recent -- and controversial -- ads tackled this question: "Does the Islamic religion represent a threat to America?"

Campbell's answer was that Muslims "seek to influence a nation by immigration, reproduction, education, the government, illegal drugs, and by supporting the gay agenda."

The pastor wrote that, when Muslims take over a nation, they "will destroy the constitution," force Islam on society, take freedom of religion away, and persecute all other religions.

"I think it's important for people to realize, I am not a racist. I think some people misjudged the article because it's a short article."

Alikhadar Yusuf, an imam and operation coordinator for the Somali Elders Council in St. Cloud, was shocked when he read it.

"Honestly, Muslims and the Islamic teachings [are] nothing but peace and helping one another," Yusuf said. "And what I see here is totally ... factually untrue."

Others upset by the ad called Campbell a racist. Some who strongly disagreed sent him emails --- as did people who said they were encouraged by his message.

Campbell said he didn't intend to instill fear, offend anyone, or encourage hostility toward Muslims. He noted that his ad ends by asking people if they have put their faith in Jesus Christ, repented and accepted Him as their savior.

"I think it's important for people to realize, I am not a racist," Campbell said. "I think some people misjudged the article because it's a short article. We did not have time to go into detail on everything and so they did not read the last paragraph."

That's not what some people in the community took away from his ad.

Yusuf said the content of Campbell's ad perpetuates stereotypes of Muslims and Islam and adds fuel to recent incidents that have spurred racial and religious tensions in the community. Yusuf also worries that the pastor's message will damage the relationship between Muslims and Christians in St. Cloud.

While St. Cloud has traditionally been dominated by Catholics, the relatively recent influx of Somali residents led to the city's first mosque in 2001.

"If the whole aim of this article was to convert people, there are other ways that the pastor can convert people to his religion," Yusuf said. "But this type of language when you use it in an article -- and a lot of people will read this article -- it will create a lot of fear."

Another local pastor agrees. The Rev. Randy Johnson of First United Methodist Church is concerned that people will think Campbell is speaking for all Christians. That's not the case, he said.

Recent tensions have prompted Christians and Muslims of all ages to get to know one another and better understand each other's religion, he said.

"Dialogue is about listening," Johnson said. "It's not about trying to persuade or convince or convert, it's about growing understanding so that we can have some trust in this community and learn how by listening to one another we discover really mostly what we have in common in human beings, that we have the same hopes and dreams for our children and this community."

Rev. Randy Johnson
Rev. Randy Johnson of First United Methodist Church.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Johnson's church has already hosted a couple of conversations on this topic. Yusuf and other Islamic leaders plan similar projects in the near future.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations published a counter advertisement called, "We are American, We are Muslim," in the St. Cloud Times.

The ad's descriptions of Muslims included neighbors, natives, immigrants, doctors, lawyers, and teachers to ease any fears about Muslims and show the diverse roles Muslims play in American society.

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