Converts from Islam to Christianity are increasingly concerned about a number of reports in recent months which have cited astounding statistics on conversion. It is true – and a matter for thankfulness to God – that more Muslims are now coming to Christ than at any other time in history. However, they are not converting on the vast scale alleged in some reports. These false reports, often initiated by non-Christians and then circulated by Christians, are a matter of grave concern, not just for those who love truth and accuracy, but also for the many individuals whose lives are being endangered by the publicity given to the exaggerated figures.
Muslims view apostasy from Islam as bringing shame and humiliation on the Muslim community. Publicising that there are large numbers of converts deepens the shame and loss of face. Many Muslims believe that shame is best removed by the shedding of blood and may therefore set out to kill not only the converts themselves, but also those seeking to evangelise Muslims, whether national evangelists or Western missionaries. Some may go even further and seek to get revenge and restore the honour of Islam by attacking any available target they associate with the “Christian” West.
Innocence and ignorance
Why should someone exaggerate the number of converts? There are a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is an innocent miscalculation when making estimates in a sensitive context where there can be no firm figures. For example, an estimate might have been made by asking leaders of known convert churches or convert groups how many members are in their particular group and then adding together the answers given. The error here is that people may attend more than one church or group from time to time and thus a single individual may have been counted many times over. Owing to the need for secrecy and the reluctance to name names, the overlap between groups is not known to the researcher.
Another innocent mistake comes from cross-cultural missionaries misinterpreting phenomena which they see. For example, an “altar call” in some African contexts may result in, say, 1,000 people “going forward”. Someone who grew up in the individualistic culture of the West may interpret this as 1,000 people deciding to give their lives to Christ. But in the local culture, probably more communal and community-minded, many people will simply have gone forward because they saw others doing so.
Some extreme contextual models of mission, which emphasise very close identification with Islam, make it virtually impossible to distinguish converts from those who are still Muslims. Thus figures of “converts” may include many who are not really Christian believers.
Sometimes reports appear to have been originated by people unaware that a historic indigenous Church exists in many Muslim-majority countries. So when a large Christian congregation is seen in, for example Egypt, the observer assumes that all the worshippers must be converts from Islam.
Other reasons are less innocent. When the Taliban were still in power in Afghanistan, a report circulated of huge numbers of Afghan converts from Islam to Christianity. This originated with a disgruntled Afghan refugee who had been employed by a Western NGO. When he was dismissed from his job for dishonesty he retaliated by going to a newspaper and claiming that large numbers of Afghan Muslims had become Christians. As he doubtless intended, the message, which was swiftly circulated around the world by delighted Christians, turned the Afghan government and people against Christian NGOs, and creating great danger for the small number of genuine Afghan converts and increased risk for all Westerners in Afghanistan.
A story that six million African Muslims are becoming Christians every year resulted from claims made by Sheikh Ahmad al Katani of Libya in a televised interview shown Al-Jazeera. The sheikh’s aim appeared to be to alarm Muslim viewers with high figures of Muslims leaving their faith in order to persuade them to give more generously to Islamic missionary efforts in Africa.
There has also been a very strong anti-evangelism move within Islam, aimed at preventing Christian mission work amongst Muslims. By citing large numbers of converts to Christianity, Muslims inflame Muslim public opinion against Christian evangelism. Furthermore, since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and the “war on terror”, Muslim leaders have increasingly been arguing that President Bush’s policy is to transform the Middle East into a Christian entity by Christian mission coupled with American military might. This totally erroneous linkage has created more danger for Western forces based in Muslim countries as well as for Christian missionaries, whether expatriate or national.
Sadly, there are also examples of Christians deliberately circulating inflated figures of converts. These are usually Western organisations whose financial support depends on the enthusiasm of Christians in their home countries. Some seem to have been newly created with the specific purpose of caring for these converts, without having had any previous involvement with them. It is presumably because of this that some have claimed absurdly high numbers of converts. Such figures soon become public and again inflame Muslim sensibilities.
Some Muslims come to Christ through dreams and visions. This has led to wild stories of whole villages and whole communities becoming Christians, stories which have never, to Barnabas Fund’s knowledge, been substantiated.
Coming at the worst time
It will never be possible to quantify how many lives have been lost or how many ministries damaged as a result of falsely high claims about convert numbers. But it behoves all Christians in secure and free countries to think carefully before publicising convert figures. In April 1996 the Somali Islamist group al-Itixaad al-Islami announced that they had succeeded in killing every Somali Christian in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and would now move on to eliminating Somali Christians in Nairobi. Thankfully there are still Somali Christians in Somalia, but al-Itixaad al-Islami may yet be trying to find and kill them. Certainly, Somali converts have continued to be assassinated in Somalia, including three last month: two on 13th April and another on 22nd April.
Converts are increasingly concerned at the way in which publicity in the West is creating extra danger for them. They are further concerned when some Western Christians have linked converts from Islam to the political state of Israel. Muslim propaganda is always rife with conspiracy theories, centring on Muslim converts functioning as Zionist agents to penetrate Muslim society. The existence of the internet and email make dangerous misinformation far more readily circulated and accessed than ever before. Furthermore, this all comes at a time when Islamic radicalism is on the rise and converts are as a result facing threats, violence and martyrdom on a scale unknown for many generations.
Many Muslims are coming to Christ through the faithful witness of local evangelists, local churches and local ministries. In these communities the new converts are nurtured and discipled. Others are coming to Christ through radio and television, both of which media have well developed counselling programmes to follow up enquirers and converts. Muslims also find Christ through the miraculous, often going on to ask local churches or Christian acquaintances to help them understand their new faith. The idea that new Western initiatives will deliver millions of Muslim converts who would be uncared for were it not for the new organisations fails to recognise not only the excellent work of many long-term Western missionaries and mission organizations who are serving faithfully, sensitively and unobtrusively, but also national Christian workers in the Muslim world who minister unstintingly, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.
The present “numbers game” is proving deadly. While it is good to highlight in public discussions the issue of Islamic law’s death sentence for apostasy, the quoting of provocative numbers in the Western media is not welcomed by converts. In any case there are many secret believers known only to God.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo,