DETROIT — A group that counts Islam among the ills facing the nation began a 24-hour prayer rally Friday evening in an area with one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States.
The gathering at Ford Field, the stadium where the Detroit Lions play, is designed to tackle issues such as the economy, racial strife, same-sex relationships and abortion. But the decade-old organization known as TheCall has said Detroit is a "microcosm of our national crisis" in all areas, including "the rising tide of the Islamic movement."
Leaders of TheCall believe a satanic spirit is shaping all parts of U.S. society, and it must be challenged through intensive Christian prayer and fasting. Such a demonic spirit has taken hold of specific areas, Detroit among them, organizers say. In the months ahead of their rallies, teams of local organizers often travel their communities performing a ritual called "divorcing Baal," the name of a demon spirit, to drive out the devil from each location.
"Our concern is that we are literally being demonized by the organizers of this group," said Dawud Walid, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations' Michigan chapter, which last week urged local mosques and Islamic schools to increase security. "And given the recent history of other groups that have come into Michigan ... we're concerned about this prayer vigil stoking up the flames of divisiveness in the community."
TheCall is the latest and largest of several groups or individuals to come to the Detroit area with a message that stirred up many of its estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims. Recent visitors have included Florida pastor Terry Jones; members of the Westboro Baptist Church; and the Acts 17 Apologetics, missionaries who were arrested for disorderly conduct last year at Dearborn's Arab International Festival but were later acquitted.
As with many other Christian groups, TheCall and its adherents believe Jesus is the only path to salvation. While they consider all other religions false, they have a specific focus on Islam, largely in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorism overseas and fear that Islam, which is also a proselytizing faith, will spread faster than Christianity.
TheCall is modeled partly on the Promise Keepers, the men's stadium prayer movement that was led in the 1990s by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. TheCall's first major rally was in September 2000 on the national Mall in Washington, drawing tens of thousands of young people to pray for a Christian revival in America. Co-founder Lou Engle has organized similar rallies in several cities, including a 2008 event at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium two days before Election Day to generate support for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.
Theologically, Engle is part of a stream of Pentecostalism that is independent of any denomination and is intensely focused on the end times. Within these churches, some leaders are elevated to the position of apostle, or hearing directly from God.
Muslims weren't the only ones concerned about Friday's event. A coalition of Detroit clergy led a march of about 150 people from a city park to the football stadium Friday evening, around the time the rally inside was scheduled to start.
"We chanted `Stop the hate, spread the love. Stop the hate, spread the jobs,'" the Rev. David Bullock told The Associated Press after their hourlong march and prayer rally.
He described the outdoor prayer rally as "very non-violent, very peaceful," and said there was no trouble with anyone entering Ford Field for TheCall.
Bullock said he and other Detroit area clergy have received calls this week asking about TheCall. He said he has told them to research Engle.
"They didn't know. People are really shocked by the rhetoric in his sermons. We are going to send a different message that the God we serve loves everyone."
Engle declined interview requests from the AP, and one of his representatives referred calls to Apostle Ellis Smith of Detroit's Jubilee City Church. Smith, who appeared with Engle and other Detroit-area clergy in promotional videos filmed at Ford Field, considers himself a point-person for TheCall in Detroit.
Smith told the AP that fears of the event taking on an anti-Muslim tone are overblown. He said attendees won't be "praying against Muslims," but rather "against terrorism that has its roots in Islam."
"We're dealing with extremism," he said. "We're against extremism when it comes to Christians."
Still, in a pre-event sermon he delivered Oct. 9 at a suburban church, Smith called Islam a "false," "lame" and "perverse" religion. He said it was allowed to take root in Detroit because of the city's strong religious base. That's why TheCall event is "pivotal," he said.
"That's why I believe it's by divine appointment: Detroit is the most religious city in America," Smith said in the sermon, adding later, "What I'm saying to you is Detroit had to happen because we have to break these barriers that have hindered in so many ways."
The sermon was archived on the online sermon library Sermon.net.
Smith on Thursday said he was offering his personal perspective that Islam is "a false religion, as many others are."
He said the main focus of Friday's gathering is "loving God, loving God's people."
Dawn Bethany, 43, said she is attending with about 70 others from Lansing's Epicenter of Worship, where she is the church's administrator. Bethany said she believes the event will be a "monumental spiritual experience," and "the negativity is a distraction from seeing who God is." God, she said, "is love."
Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit and AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.
___Jeff Karoub can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub