Local Christians split on whether to convert Muslims

According to the denomination’s Office of the General Assembly, 70 percent of its missionaries are engaged in bringing Christianity to Muslim communities in the United States and abroad – a task that less than four percent of Christian missionaries of all denominations attempt.


source: Fort Wayne, the journal Gazette Nov. 11, 2006

By Rosa Salter Rodriguez
The Journal Gazette

Horgan

Spath

Ron Horgan, a pastor in the peaceful rural Indiana community of Warsaw, might seem far removed from the riots that erupted this year over a cartoon that insensitively depicted the prophet Muhammad or the furor over Pope Benedict’s quotation of a 14th-century source critical of Islam.

But Horgan is not far off from one of the thornier questions facing Christian denominations today: how best to relate to members of the Muslim world.

Horgan leads a congregation of a conservative branch of Presbyterianism, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination that conducts missionary work among Muslims.

According to the denomination’s Office of the General Assembly, 70 percent of its missionaries are engaged in bringing Christianity to Muslim communities in the United States and abroad – a task that less than four percent of Christian missionaries of all denominations attempt.

Horgan knows some of the missionaries personally, and he supports their efforts.

“I have friends right now in (the former Soviet republic of) Kazakhstan working among Muslims there. They are actually involved in planting a whole denomination of churches, to reach three different kinds of Muslims,” he says. “In fact, my one friend who works over there has been trying to get me to come.”

That, Horgan says, probably won’t happen soon, unless he could serve in a temporary role.

But he sees witnessing to Muslims in the hope of converting them to Christianity as a necessary part of his religion and firmly based in the New Testament’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

“After all, Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel,’ ” Horgan says. “We just had the sense in our denomination that that part of the world had been written off.”

He adds: “I personally think the Gospel is for everyone. You can’t exclude anyone.”

Other area denominations echo Horgan’s views.

At First Assembly of God in Fort Wayne, an invitation to pray for Muslims during Ramadan was included in the church bulletin. Ramadan is a holy month of fasting among Muslims. The invitation at First Assembly is in line with the Assemblies of God’s longtime, and increasingly difficult, missionary presence in Iran, where Islam is the state religion. Some missionaries there have been imprisoned or executed, and pastors and members have faced more restrictions on practicing their religion since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

National Assembly of God leaders say they believe some of the government’s actions result from the church’s success in converting Muslims over the years. Ron Williams, a pastor at First Assembly, said the content of the local prayers would be for Muslims to receive “a revelation of God through Christ,” but declined to comment further based on “the sensitivity of the issue” abroad and locally.

At Fort Wayne’s Concordia Theological Seminary, members of a small Lutheran Church-Missouri synod group called People of the Book Lutheran Outreach, or POBLO, have been taking classes to enable them to minister among Muslims.

“People of the Book” is a term used in Islam to refer to Jews and Christians.

All of the POBLO members have converted from Islam to Christianity, says William C. Weinrich, the seminary’s academic dean who has taught POBLO students.

He says their native countries include Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Lebanon. None has come from Fort Wayne.

Often the students have “a remarkable set of life experiences,” Weinrich says.

“They are incredibly well-versed in the Quran, and they have deep respect for their Muslim roots, but they have found that Christianity gives them something more, and they want to present that to the people from whom they themselves come.”

POBLO members work in churches in the Dearborn and Detroit areas of Michigan where there are large Islamic and Arabic communities as well as in the Chicago, Dallas and New York City areas, Weinrich says.

And Fellowship Missionary Church in Fort Wayne has made many contacts with local Muslims through its work with refugees and new immigrants.

“We’re trying to help them get situated, find housing and a job, just to help them, to love them,” says Beverly Martin, a church member.

“We don’t specifically preach to them. What happens, though, is that because of that help we are winning them. … They see we have the love of Jesus.”

Conversion is a problematic subject among Muslims because it is considered an ultimate sin, a deliberate turning away from God. In some cases, it has been punished by death.

Imam J. Tamir Rasheed of Fort Wayne’s Al-Fatihah Da-Wah Center on the south side of Fort Wayne, disputes whether Muslims were truly following their faith when they impose that punishment. He also doubts a true Muslim, strong in the faith, would ever convert.

“The Quran says there is no compulsion in Islam. A person cannot be forced to stay in the faith. And if a person leaves, do I have a right to take his life? No, I don’t. I’m not God,” he says.

But Rasheed says conversion efforts may not be in the best interests of Christians.

“The best thing Christians can do is to be good examples of what Christ told you to do, which is to correct in yourself what needs to be corrected,” he says, “before the thought of trying to convert or bring someone else into the faith enters your mind.”

And not all Fort Wayne-area Christians would agree that converting Muslims should be an aim of members of their faith.

“I as a Christian would find it offensive,” says Michael Spath of Fort Wayne, visiting professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and director of the city’s Middle East Peace Education Project. “All it does is add to the mistrust and distance between us.”

A better strategy, Spath says, might be stressing the connections between Christians and Muslims and Jews as “fellow monotheists” and members of faiths that all trace their roots to the Old Testament patriarch Abraham.

Amina Advany, a 25-year-old Muslim born in Fort Wayne and now working in retail while completing a communications degree at IPFW, says she often has been on the receiving end of conversion efforts.

On her job, she says, she has been given religious tracts by Christians. Once, as a teenager, a Christian friend was in tears because she believed Advany would go to hell because she didn’t accept Jesus. And, recently, a woman at a salon where Advany was having her nails done remarked that Muslims “should be accepting that Jesus Christ is coming again” and “want to be saved.”

“I told her I’m Muslim,” she says. “Who can say I’m not saved?”

Advany says has no trouble standing for what she believes because her religion was her free choice.

“A lot of people question me about my religion because I tend to wear it on my sleeve,” she says. “But I’m proud of it.”

Of the “hundreds and hundreds” of Muslims she knows, Advany says, only two or three have converted to Christianity. And she thinks that a Christian praying for her conversion is “kind of strange.”

“If a Christian prayed that I would be a stronger Muslim, that would be flattering to me,” she says. “A family friend once said, ‘It doesn’t matter what path you take to God so long as you follow it.’ I think that is really true.”

Aisha Batwol, a Muslim of Pakistani descent who moved to Fort Wayne from New York about three years ago, says she finds relationships among members of different faiths here “very nice.”

“They receive you very well,” says the 20-year-old woman from behind the counter of the Islamic speciality food market she runs with her husband at Hobson Road and East State Boulevard. “Not like New York.”

Asked how she would feel about Christians praying that she convert, she pauses.

“I cannot give an answer,” she says. “That is their religion, ours is ours. We cannot force them, and they cannot force us, because religion is religion. It’s in the heart.”

Erik Ohlander, assistant professor of religious studies in the philosophy department at IPFW, says he has never seen any direct confrontations on the issue of conversion. “It would surprise me if I did,” he says.

Attitudes locally tend to fall along denominational lines, he says, with Catholics and mainline Protestants as tending to want to “engage in dialogue” while evangelical Protestants take a harder line and tend to see Muslims “as they would anyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus.”

Horgan, who notes that his denomination was witnessing to Muslims well before Sept. 11, 2001, says that missionaries are “only the messengers.” The Holy Spirit, not the Christian doing the witnessing, determines whether conversion happens, he says.

“Outreach to Muslims is a difficult thing. It’s important that it be done in a way that does not ignite fire in these tender times,” he says. “But I think we’re excited to be part of a church involved in outreach.”

Weinrich says that it’s difficult to walk a middle ground when Islam and Christianity have fundamental theological differences and make “universal, all-encompassing claims.”

But many Christian leaders try to walk a middle ground.

The Rev. Fred Hasecke, senior pastor at Fort Wayne’s Trinity English Lutheran Church, which has sponsored educational events about and including Muslims, says his denomination, affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, would not pray for the conversion of Muslims – but would hold them in prayer.

“We want to bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ, just as Jews and Muslims and others bear witness to their faith, but we don’t want ever to demean anyone because their faith,” he says.

“Our prayer would be for everyone’s welfare – for everyone to share in God’s blessings and the love and peace of God.”

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