CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Rev. Billy Graham returned to his hometown to break ground on a new headquarters for his ministry and a museum he hopes will carry his evangelistic legacy far into the future.
Showing the same reserve of strength that helped him preach to 255,000 people at a four-day mission in Dallas last month, Graham handed off the cane he uses for walking Tuesday and turned three shovelfuls of dirt, despite frail health in recent years.
"This move to Charlotte anchors us firmly to our roots," said the 83-year-old evangelist, whose ministry is relocating after half a century in Minneapolis.
About 500 guests rode shuttle buses to the museum site and were protected from the rain by a large white tent. Gov. Mike Easley was there to declare the day Billy Graham Appreciation Day. And the setting reminded Mayor Pat McCrory of the kind of revival meeting where Graham committed to his life's work.
"How appropriate that we meet under a big tent," he told the audience.
About 20 demonstrators gathered just off the property, protesting comments son Franklin Graham has made about Islam. In a television interview last year after the Sept. 11 attacks, Franklin Graham called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" and has continued to be critical in subsequent remarks.
"I came here to defend my faith," said Malek Jandali, a Muslim and native of Syria. "God came to us in words, and words are very powerful. ... When Franklin Graham says that our prophet Muhammad is a terrorist, that does more harm than good."
Franklin Graham said he stands by his comments.
"We are to reconcile one another to God through faith in Jesus Christ," he said. "On a day like this, my interest is for the future of this property and not people standing on the fringes with other interests."
His father, however, was more empathetic.
"I welcome them all and I love them all," Billy Graham said. "I have many friends in that part of religion."
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's international headquarters is to be constructed on 63 acres off the Billy Graham Parkway near Charlotte's airport. The association also plans a museum and library dedicated to Graham and the history of evangelism.
The move is expected to be complete by mid-2004. Relocating to Charlotte was one of Franklin Graham's first major decisions after he took over the association from his father in 2000.
Last summer, Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the deal under which the city sold the land to the Billy Graham organization, saying Charlotte should not have agreed to pay $325,000 for road improvements and utilities.
The city said the subsidy was no different from others that have been used to lure prominent businesses to Charlotte. The museum and library are expected to attract 200,000 visitors annually.
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