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Prayer invitation to Arafat sparks ire of religious right

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (JTA) — As a sign of Yasser Arafat’s growing stature, a leading conservative member of Congress has invited the Palestinian Authority chairman to the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Arafat, who has rejected three previous invitations to the event, plans to attend the Feb. 4 reception, which will bring together American leaders and international guests to, in the words of organizers, “bring about reconciliation all over the world.” President Clinton, who is also scheduled to attend the prayer breakfast, said he would host Arafat at an informal meeting during the Palestinian leader’s brief U.S. visit. The decision by U.S. Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) to invite Arafat to the prayer breakfast has sparked furor from some of his closest allies in the evangelical Christian community. Previous invitations came from Democrats, who held the rotating chairmanship of the breakfast. According to sources familiar with a campaign now under way, three of the nation’s largest evangelical Christian groups — the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family — oppose Arafat’s appearance. “It is an ill-informed, bad decision to invite a known terrorist and murderer of Jews and Christians, and Americans, to participate in a public exercise of faith here in the nation’s capital,” said Jeffrey Taylor, director of government relations for the Christian Coalition. “While we applaud and support all efforts to reach out to people of all different faiths, we do not think this is the time or the place to embrace a known terrorist,” said Taylor, who will not attend a dinner the night before the breakfast to protest the Arafat invite. Jewish groups have not weighed in on the matter but the family of a victim of a Palestinian terrorist attack has. “An invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast will bestow upon Mr. Arafat a degree of legitimacy and credibility that he has not earned,” Stephen Flatow wrote in a letter this week to Largent. Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was killed in a terrorist attack in Gaza, appealed to Largent to rescind the invitation and “join me in calling on Mr. Arafat to arrest and surrender to the U.S. for prosecution those terrorists who took part in the murder of my daughter Alisa and 10 other American citizens in Israel since 1993.” After Arafat’s planned attendance became public, Largent sought to distance himself from the decision, saying he was not aware of the hundreds of individuals included on the invitation list, according to Brad Keena, Largent’s spokesman. At the same time, Largent has said he believes it would be beneficial for Arafat to hear the Gospel. But Taylor said, “This is not the place to do it.” Guests are expected to include most members of Congress, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Representatives from the diplomatic corps from 160 countries were also invited to attend. The breakfast became increasingly controversial in the evangelical community after sections of the Koran were read last year and organizers invited ambassadors from countries accused of persecuting Christians. Palestinian officials said they did not know why Arafat decided to accept this year’s invitation. Israel’s ambassador to the United States and the United Nations were also invited to the event. It is unclear if either would attend. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not invited this year because his staff told the organizers that he would be unable to attend, Keena said. Leah Rabin, widow of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, may attend the breakfast, organizers said.