Opposition to the planned visit of an controversial preacher is growing, with church and community leaders voicing their concern over the impact it may have.
Franklin Graham, who has made several anti-gay and anti-Islamic comments in previous years, is expected to speak at the Winter Gardens during the three-day Lancashire Festival of Hope next September.
Both Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard and Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden have now written to the home secretary about the American evangelist Christian’s trip, while a petition urging the government to deny the 65-year-old a visa has gathered more than 6,000 signatures.
And in an open letter to Lancashire bishop Julian Henderson, Canon Andrew Sage and Rev Tracy Charnock from St Stephen on the Cliffs in North Shore said: “We are so nervous about this proposed visit and the damage it will do. Our local Imam is already afraid to put his personal address and phone number on their website.
“Despite the confusion, and despite the hurt we know it will cause to some of my Christian and indeed Anglican brothers and sisters in Blackpool ... we cannot stay silent in the face of such dangerous and outspoken prejudice.”
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said he believes some of Graham’s comments may have fallen foul of UK law had they been made here – and wrote to Amber Rudd to say there may be a case ‘for him to be refused a visa’.
“He has spoken in quite sensational and in some cases inaccurate terms about lesbian and gay people, and about Islam, and even women” he said.
“There’s a prima facie case for this to be examined very, very carefully.”
Coun Maria Kirkland, the town hall’s leisure boss, said the council has ‘been made aware of a number of alleged comments and opinions on topics including gender, sexuality, race, and immigration’ by Mr Graham.
She warned that any comments that could ‘constitute incitement to hatred’ could be reported to the police and ‘should this be proved, we will not hesitate to terminate this booking’.
“The council’s position on these matters is robust and clear,” she said. “We want to tackle discrimination, promote equality, and increase respect and understanding between people regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation, or any such matter that can be subject to prejudice in our society.”
Coun Kirkland said it’s the Home Office’s job to determine whether Mr Graham’s comments constitute incitement to hate, a criminal act in the UK, and added: “The council will be forwarding all the material that has been given to us and we would encourage other interested parties to do the same.”
Gay businessman Basil Newby, who owns several bars in Blackpool including Flamingo, Funny Girls, and The Flying Handbag, said he had to hide his sexuality when he first opened up shop in the resort in the 70s for fear of persecution – but said times have changed.
“Blackpool is like Las Vegas on heat, anything is allowed and it’s part of the equality of the town,” he said.
“This could set all the good that has gone on in the last 40 years back by decades.”
Mr Graham, whose father Billy visited in 1982, was in London last week, though the Home Office considers each visa application on a case-by-case basis.
Amber Rudd has the power to stop him from coming for the festival if she decides it’s in the public interest, though the department said it does not comment on individual cases.
Nina Parker, pastor at the Liberty Church in High Street and the woman behind the petition to Ms Rudd, said: “I am protesting about him coming because I believe that the repeated and persistent hate speech that he expresses will invite prejudice and give validation to people who do hold hateful views.
“His very extreme statements will be covered by the media and may encourage people with those extreme views, and will embolden them to express them openly.
“This will lead to an increase in hate crimes in the region.”
Nobody at the festival’s organiser, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, which counts Mr Graham as its president and CEO, could be reached for a comment, but a spokesman told The Guardian: “It will be a postive and encouraging event with music, and also a message from Franklin Graham about the hope that can be found through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Mr Graham also heads up Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid charity that helps people throughout the world including Vietnam, where just eight per cent of people are Christians, and Myanmar, where 88 per cent of people are Buddhists. Matthew Branson, from Cornerstone Radio in Boothly Road, Blackpool, said: “We are very excited about it because to be honest there is a great big division between religion and faith. Christianity means Christ-like, and walking in the footsteps of Christ.
“Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who is an amazing inspiration, is coming to Blackpool and inspire Christians to stick together and help people, and to be more Christ-like.
“Sometimes people say they are Christian because they are British, or because they have been christened, or because they believe in God. There is more to it than that.
“Being a Christian is doing things, helping the homeless, helping people and going out of your way in the community, working with the people who will deny you.
“Having someone like Franklin Graham come to Blackpool to inspire people I think it’s an amazing thing.
“Christianity helps you to forgive people who hurt you and it helps you move forward, and that’s what this town really needs. They need a sense that they are loved.”
He continued: “Every religion and every faith has rules. You can’t do one and be the other. You either are a Christian and abide by the 10 commandments, or you are not a Christian and you do not.
“He’s not saying anything different to what the Bible says.
“I don’t have a problem with Franklin Graham saying he believes what what it says in the Bible is factual and true, but I do think we should consider how people will feel when they hear these stories.
“I don’t judge. The biggest part about being a Christian is not to judge. If a person is a gay or a lesbian that doesn’t mean that I hate them, it just means that they chose their own way. “You can’t have two ways of living.” Government minister Paul Maynard, who voted against gay marriage in the UK, said: “I am aware of the concerns over Dr Graham’s proposed visit to Blackpool and I recently wrote to Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP to seek clarification on the conditions under which Dr Graham would be permitted to enter the UK.
“While I do not in any way condone or support his views on certain subjects, ultimately it is up to the Border Agency, based on very strict guidelines, to decide whether Dr Graham should be admitted.
“I trust that the appropriate decision will be made.”