By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Americans, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, were jailed for showing a Muslim family in Kabul a film about Jesus and giving another a Christian storybook. After they were freed in November during the war against the Taliban, President Bush gave them a heroes' welcome at the White House and praised their faith. This fall, they are on tour promoting a book.
Curry and Mercer, both Baylor University graduates, entered the country as secular workers for the German-based relief group Shelter Now International, but they explained after they were released that they were following Christian callings. Curry, in fact, says she was inspired by a family from her church in Waco who had gone to Afghanistan before her.
The Southern Baptists' International Mission Board reports that about a quarter of its 5,000 missionaries are stationed in the region between West Africa and East Asia where most of the world's Muslims reside. Another organization active in that region, Arizona-based Frontiers, reportedly has 800 missionaries working in 37 countries.
Students in Fort Worth say they expect to take similar paths--going undercover with jobs as teachers, translators, business people, relief workers, and working one-on-one with Muslims they meet in an attempt to plant small bands of believers. Their professor says there is nothing wrong with the approach if the Bible is used as a guide.
"During the time of Jesus, when his disciples started to preach the gospel, the leaders of the Jewish nation warned them against that," says Shahid, talking in his small, book-lined office on the leafy seminary campus. "St. Peter said, 'Do I obey you or do I obey God?' The law of a country is not what Jesus commanded. He commanded us to preach the gospel. So in this case, we have a higher authority."
Unlike conservative Christian leaders who have taken to attacking Islam over the past year as an "evil religion," Shahid says he tries to instill in his students a deep knowledge of its teachings and its society so they will approach Muslims "with understanding and love."
The 67-year-old Shahid, who grew up in Jordan and Lebanon and emigrated to the United States in 1976 to escape the Lebanese civil war, fits the image of an academic in his oversized glasses and vaguely matching suit and tie. He began teaching at the Fort Worth seminary in 1994 and has advanced to where he now is a tenured professor in charge of a degree program. Shahid is polite and soft-spoken as he launches into one of his favorite topics: the inequality of religious opportunity between the open West and the relatively closed Islamic regions. The prohibitions vary greatly by country, he says. "There is no church in Saudi Arabia, and in most of North Africa, you have churches only for tourists, not their own people. Iran is very restrictive. In Jordan, Syria, Egypt, there are all denominations, but you are not allowed to reach out, to witness to non-Christians."
He has not been subject to persecution himself, but he says friends and associates have been detained or killed because of their faith.
"We have Muslims here [in the United States] who are very mission-minded. They preach. They build mosques, radio stations. They put out magazines. They are in this country doing freely what they want. Why don't they allow the Christians to do the same thing, to worship in Christian churches? This isn't something that should be looked at from just one angle."
The Southern Baptists' International Mission Board, which presumably will employ some of his graduates, says it operates completely within the laws of host countries. "There are groups out there that are compelled to smuggle Bibles, to operate outside of the ground rules, and that is not us," says Mark Kelly, a board spokesman. He says governments provide lists of needs--humanitarian, medical, development projects--and the board sends people to meet them out of a sense of Christian giving. "Generally, we're not going to do any street preaching or handing out literature."
That is true, says one of the board's top Middle East mission trainers, but that does not mean the organization's people are not offering Christian testimonials to Muslims in subtler ways.
Mike Edens, who spent 17 years in Egypt doing mission work, says he went there in 1980 under a missionary visa that restricted his activities to work with local Christians. Once he began approaching Muslims, he obtained a new visa to work as a business consultant in order to remain aboveboard. His business status put him under no specific restrictions, and he was technically free to operate. Anti-proselytizing laws in Egypt, he says, forbid missionaries to preach while at the same time offering something of material value. He simply preached.
"I believe every Christian is to be a witness for Christ," he says. As for penalties against converts, which under Islamic law could be as severe as a death sentence, he says: "It is very odd that in bearing witness you put people at risk of their government's displeasure. I look at it a different way. I see people as being at risk in not having information enough about Christ."