Members of Vancouver's Christian community and city officials are furiously trying to stop controversial Christian evangelist Franklin Graham from speaking to thousands of people at an event next week at Rogers Arena.

Graham is speaking at the Festival of Hope event that's being organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

"This is unusual for us to deal with in Vancouver – this kind of individual and this kind of hate rhetoric," said Councillor Tim Stevenson.

Graham is a polarizing figure who has drawn attention for comments that denigrate minorities. He's been quoted calling on the U.S. "to use weapons of mass destruction if need be" and referring to Islam as "a very evil and a very wicked religion."

Most recently, the son of famous televangelist Billy Graham took the spotlight for reading a passage of scripture at the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. 

In the past, he's made disparaging remarks about homosexuals, once praising Russian President Vladmir Putin for his oppressive stance toward members of the LGBTQ community.

"We live in a country that has free speech, but there's a difference between free speech and hate speech" said Stevenson, who is also an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada.

Stevenson said the worry is that Graham will incite hate speech and that's concerning in light of the recent attack at a Quebec mosque that left six dead.

"The city has an issue of safety here and we're really concerned about it."

On Feb. 10, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was part of a meeting of 14 local leaders from evangelical, Anglican, Roman Catholic and other Christian groups.

They've now penned a letter to organizers pushing for Franklin to be removed from the event.

"We have no problem with someone coming to preach the gospel. But it can't be such a divisive figure that's so anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-black," said Tom Cooper, a minister and the president of the City in Focus Group.

A petition has also been launched calling for Franklin's removal.

Both Stevenson and Cooper said if the situation was reversed, there would be an uproar.

"If there was a fiery imam that came to Vancouver and held a rally with 30,000 Muslims and his rhetoric had been of the same nature — the hatred toward Christians — we know we'd have people tramping into city hall saying: 'What are you doing about this imam?'" said Stevenson.

Organizers not backing down

"With every Festival of Hope we do in every city around the world there's always going to be some opposition to what we're doing," said Frank King of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada, who are organizing the festival.

King said the association acknowledges the opposition, but said it has no plans to remove Franklin Graham from the event, which he said has taken years to plan.

"To even entertain any kind of thought of changing any event ... we simply would not do that."

The three-day event is meant to spread the message of Christianity and invites non-Christians to attend.

"He'll be inviting people to become Christians at each of these events – that's his sole purpose for being here in Vancouver," said King.

Local groups helping organize the event echo that view.

"Franklin Graham is not coming to present an American political situation or his perspectives politically," said Giulio Lorefice Gabeli, a pastor with the Westwood Community Church.

"It really has nothing to do with the Festival of Hope. It has nothing to do with him coming here. To me, I feel there's a lot of fear that's being generated that is unfounded."

The event takes March 3 to 5.


To listen to CBC's The Early Edition segment where Pastor Giulio Lorefice Gabeli defends his decision to invite Graham, and to Jonathan Bird, the executive director of the Christian charity City Gate Leadership Forum, who wants Graham replaced click on the link labelled Organizer Guile Lorefice Gabeli defends his decision to invite Franklin Graham