Pa. Lutheran pastor criticized for ‘violent purge of Muslims’ comment after Notre Dame fire

Listen 1:57
A screenshot of Pastor Carl Johnson's Easter Sunday sermon, where his comments about Muslims in France have come under fire.

A screenshot of Pastor Carl Johnson's Easter Sunday sermon, where his comments about Muslims in France have come under fire.

The pastor of a Lutheran church in western Pennsylvania has drawn criticism for saying he had hoped the Notre Dame fire in Paris was set by Muslims in order to justify the eradication of Muslims from France.

Pastor Carl Johnson of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Kittanning told his congregants during an Easter Sunday service that he was publicly confessing a sin he thought would be instructive: that fighting “evil with evil” is the wrong approach.

During his sermon, Johnson described what occurred to him while watching Notre Dame engulfed in flames.

“As it was burning, I immediately suspected who? The terrorists who had tried in 2016 to blow it up. There have been attempts before because it is the symbol of Christianity in France,” Johnson said. “I immediately made that conclusion, but that’s not the bad part that I’m confessing. I was hoping it was Muslim terrorism so that, hopefully, there would be a violent purge of Muslims from France. I wanted that because France is lost.”

Johnson then spoke ominously about the growing number of Muslims in France. About 9% of the country’s population is Muslim, though Johnson said if the religious minority continues to have children at rates higher than white French residents, the country could become predominantly Muslim.

“It’s only going to take a generation, maybe two, before France is Muslim, and there’s no stopping it. There’s just no stopping it,” Johnson said. “And I thought, oh, this could be it. We will fight evil with evil. We will fight fire with fire.”

Johnson then told church-goers that there was a “problem” with his dark wish, which is that “evil can only beget evil.”

“So it is that I need Jesus,” he said.

During the sermon, he made no further remarks clarifying his opinion of Muslims.

‘Words have consequences’

“It’s extremely irresponsible,” said Abbas Barzegar, director of research and advocacy at the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations. “It plays upon certain anti-Muslim tropes and conspiracy theories. And it plays upon anti-immigration feelings.”

Johnson said his “tough” thought was meant to be a teachable moment, but Barzegar said the lesson for some might have been the opposite of what the pastor said he intended.

“To float this outrageous set of ideas and then barely taper them off is either extremely short-sighted to the point of culpable negligence, or it was a sinister, bigoted move,” he said. “Leaders like this need to do some self-reflection because words have consequences.”

Johnson’s full sermon had been posted by the church to YouTube, but the clip was taken offline after an inquiry by Keystone Crossroads.

The audio, though, is preserved below.

In a follow-up interview Tuesday, Johnson explained his position further.

“I was trying to confess that I had the wrong reaction, and we always have to guard against sin, death and the devil,” he said.

Johnson’s initial comments were made about halfway through a nearly two-hour service — prompting several people to leave in disgust.

“I was shocked. I think my mouth dropped. I was incredibly uncomfortable,” said Sarah Assali, a general surgery resident at Allegheny General Hospital who left the church in anger. “It’s not a matter of our hurt feelings. It’s a lot bigger than that.”

Prosecutors in Paris have said the Notre Dame fire appears to have started accidently and have ruled out arson or any links to terrorism.

Knowing this, Kasey Cahill, an insurance lawyer who attended the service with her in-laws, was in disbelief of Johnson’s comments.

“It came across to us as something he had sit down and thought about. It wasn’t something he just said,” said Cahill, who also left the church in protest with members of her family. “To use these comments to comport his theory that there’s nothing we can do, that ‘France is lost,’ I don’t know what other conclusion can come out of that other than Muslims are evil.”

For Assali, the experience echoed a prior experience. In the January after President Trump was elected, her Christian family from Syria was unable to enter the U.S. due to Trump’s initial travel ban on foreign nationals from seven mostly Muslim countries.

“This is the same rhetoric used to reject my family at the border when the travel ban first happened in 2017,” Assali said. “Pastor Johnson should be held accountable for his words and should be removed from his position, which he has abused by using his platform as a community leader to endorse bigotry.”

Cahill, who attended the service with a group of about a dozen others including Assali, said her family tried to reach out to Lutheran church leaders about the unsettling sermon, but she felt like the concerns were dismissed.

“It’s not a reflection of the people who attend the church, but we are disappointed by the response we received,” Cahill said. “You have to be careful with what you say, especially from a leadership position, and from a position where people are relying on him to guide them spiritually.”

The bishop she had been in contact with, the Rev. John Bradosky with the North American Lutheran Church, defended the sermon in an email to Keystone Crossroads.

“The real confusion and hatred may well be in the minds and hearts of those trying to turn his sermon into an attack on the pastor’s reputation and the Church,” he wrote.

The NALC is a newer and smaller version of Lutheranism than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.

Johnson, though, apologized to anyone who considered the sermon offensive.

“I need to apologize to them,” Johnson said. “It grieves me. I wish I had it back. I never intended for any of those perceptions.”

That said, Johnson said, “the fire did not happen in a vacuum,” citing instances of anti-Christian hate in France. “I am absolutely delighted to be completely and totally wrong.”

This story has been updated to include comments from Bishop Bradosky.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.