A fiery preacher who plans to open a Christian center near New York City's Ground Zero held the first worship service for it Sunday.
Bill Keller, founder of prayer website LivePrayer.com, drew 55 worshipers, a handful of protesters, and about 25 members of the press to the service in the Downtown New York Marriott two blocks from Ground Zero.
The controversial preacher said he opened the "old-time evangelism center" to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ 24/7, pray, and honor people who died. He's also setting up the center to counter the proposed Islamic center that has been a point of contention for the past few months.
While there are still nearly three months before Keller's center opens at its permanent location, the fundamentalist broadcaster plans to hold services at the nearby Marriott every Sunday until Jan. 1, 2011, as he did past Sunday.
After the conclusion of 2010, the permanent location will be open seven days a week to "combat this new evil being constructed near ground zero" and to "bring people the Truth of God's Word and the love and hope of Jesus Christ," referring to the proposed $100 million, 13-story Islamic cultural center and mosque that has ruffled feathers across the nation.
"We now live in a day and age that if you sit on TV as I do every night and tell people that homosexuality is a sexual perversion, it's a sin, you are called a hater. If you tell people that Mormonism is a cult, you are called a hater. If you say that Islam is a 1,400 year old lie from hell, which it is, then you are called a hater," declared Keller, who says he's ministered to people for the last 20 years.
"We have had so many Muslims convert to Christianity through our ministry because we have simply told them the truth and said, 'Listen, believe what you want to believe,'" he added Sunday, later reporting that many Mormons have also converted to Christianity through his ministry.
"This has nothing to do with hate but just the opposite, this has everything to do with love," he noted in his sermon. "We are here to preach the truth of the Bible and the love of Jesus Christ."
For years, Keller has been outspoken in his criticism of Islam, calling the religion "a 1,400-year-old lie from hell" that was advanced through violence, hatred and death. Such statements led to the cancellation of his nightly TV program on a CBS-owned station in Tampa, Fla. He also recorded a video addressed to Osama Bin Laden in 2006, urging him to "renounce the lies of Islam" and come to faith in Christ.
While there are many who disapprove of Keller's brand of Christianity - the messages of which come off to many as messages of hate - Keller insists that he cares about souls and thus feels it is his responsibility to preach the truth of the gospel.
"If this book is true, then you can't believe in Islam and go to heaven. You can't believe in Mormonism and go to heaven. You can't believe in the Baha'i and go to heaven," said Keller on Sunday.
"Gandhi is in hell according to this book," he added. "He might have been a nice guy but he was a sinner like all of us."
Paul Lewis, who drove four hours from Maryland to attend Sunday's opening service, said he follows Keller because "he is one of the few men out there who are preaching the Word [of God] without compromise."
"He's pretty bold," Lewis admitted, but "he's preaching the Word. He's not giving his own opinions."
"I think he did good," added 9/11 first responder and volunteer firefighter Vincent Forras, who presented his testimony Sunday.
Forras, who founded the Gear Up Foundation to help firefighters worldwide, shared about how he met God while trapped in the rubble during the worship service.
After the service, Forras praised Keller for pressing on with his messages even as protesters in the room interrupted him.
During the service, one man stood up holding what appeared to be a Chinese flag and shouted, "You're a cult" and "You defend abortion." Later, as Keller was praying for supporters, another man shouted about the crusades. And one person in the audience wore a T-shirt with "Support Park51" etched across it and later told press that Fox News is responsible for the debate over the Muslim-led project. He singled out conservative Mormon broadcaster Glenn Beck as being responsible for stirring people to attack Muslims.
"Unfortunately, there were people who had their own agendas," said Foras about the interruptions. "You know if one of us would do that in one of their places … forget it, it's so out of place."
When pressed by the secular media about whether it's possible to coexist with Muslims, Keller said people of different faiths can coexist, but at the end of the day, every individual has to decide for him or herself what they believe.
"If this book is true," he said, "then you either know Jesus as your savior, and you come to him in the humbleness and the pardon of your sins, and you get saved, or you don't, that's all."
"And if you don't, you are going to die and go to hell," Keller said simply. "That's what the 9/11 Christian Center is about. It's about preaching the simple truth of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ."
In addition to daily services, the $8 million facility Keller plans to open will be available for visitors to pray in each day. Keller's Liveprayer program is also scheduled to air each day in the New York City TV market beginning next year. Though services will be held at the facility, Keller has clarified that the center is not a church.
Keller paints the Christian center as essentially the antithesis of the hotly debated Islamic center, which developers say "will provide a place where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, will find a center of learning, art and culture; and most importantly, a center guided by Islamic values in their truest form - compassion, generosity, and respect for all."
Following Sunday's service, around 20 supporters of Keller's non-profit ministry lined up to pray with the preacher individually in a show of support.
Liveprayer.com claims to have over 20,000 visitors daily to the website and over 2.5 million subscribers to its Daily Devotional email. The ministry also claims to receive daily over 40,000 email prayer requests.
Over the past decade, the ministry says over 400,000 people have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior through it.
Christian Post Reporters Nathan Black in Washington and Eric Young in San Francisco contributed to this article.