Evangelist Billy Graham feted by hundreds at 95th birthday party

By John Peragine ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (Reuters) - U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who helped transform Christianity in America during seven decades in the pulpit, marked his 95th birthday on Thursday with a rare public appearance among close to 900 people who gathered to celebrate his life. Graham, who is frail but mentally alert, received a standing ovation as he was wheeled into a huge ballroom at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, a mountain town near the home of the minister. "He so positively impacted people," said former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who attended the party along with real estate tycoon Donald Trump, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren and hundreds of other Graham admirers. "His is the message of truth," Palin added. Trump sat by Graham's side as singers including Michael W. Smith, Ricky Skaggs and Kathie Lee Gifford serenaded him with "Happy Birthday." Graham, dubbed "America's Pastor," is considered one of the most important figures in modern Christianity. In his prime he counseled U.S. presidents and preached to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history, including being the first noted evangelist to take his message to countries living under Communist rule, according to his organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Though widely admired, he was not without controversy. In 2002, he apologized after the release of secretly recorded tapes from 1972 in which he and President Richard Nixon agreed that liberal Jews dominated the U.S. news media. Graham was heard saying the Jewish "stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain." Graham has not preached publicly since 2006 and spoke only briefly to the crowd that feted him with dinner and cupcakes for about two hours on Thursday. He thanked his longtime music director, Cliff Barrows, who traveled with Graham to religious crusades and rallies around the world. He also praised the Army service of a grandson sitting at his table. Graham's wife, Ruth, with whom he had five children, died in 2007. The birthday event kicked off with the screening of a new public message Graham filmed as part of the largest-ever evangelism effort by his organization. The video, titled "The Cross," could be Graham's final sermon. In it, he calls for a spiritual awakening in America. Several speakers at the event noted Graham disliked having attention focused on his works, instead wanting the focus to be on God. "God never calls us to be famous, but if we are faithful he may grant it to us," Skaggs said. "(Graham) is so simple and down to Earth." (Reporting by John Peragine; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Lisa Shumaker)