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Edens, who carried on an interview in short spurts between lectures to Baptist missionaries, says Western-style street preaching and literature handouts are out of sync with Islamic culture and ineffective given the low literacy rates in many regions. "That isn't how the society works," he says. "To some extent or another you must build relationships. There are some missionaries who will build a long, deep relationship before they will witness and share Christ. Others will be bolder, but to some extent, you must have a relationship. If you think you're going to make someone adopt this as their worldview in 30 minutes, you're going to be severely disappointed," he says.
Under "cross-cultural" methods currently in fashion, Muslims are encouraged to say Christian prayers in the traditional Muslim prostrate position and with the same frequency as they did when they prayed to Allah. At times, the Bible is also elevated on a pedestal, as is the Koran.
These may be ways of easing Muslims into another religion--and sheltering them to some extent from religious persecution--but Islamic critics deride them as false and deceptive. "If you read their materials, you will see they try to seek out the weak and the vulnerable. In this society it's lonely students. In Muslim countries, it's areas that are vulnerable for lack of food or housing or medical care," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Islamic-rights organization. "They have step-by-step plans on how to suck people into their web. They say they are helping, but what they really want from you is your faith. When you go with a Bible in one hand and food in another, you're taking advantage of your economic and political power to force your way. That isn't Christian charity."
Hooper is much less critical of relief workers and missionaries from nonevangelical churches, such as Catholics. They have less soul-saving zeal and are so low-key they belie the traditional image of the missionary.
Sister Rosanne Rustemeyer, executive director of the U.S. Catholic Mission Association in Washington and a former missionary in Sierra Leone, says Catholic missionaries are not as focused on tallying up baptisms as they were 50 years ago. "We don't see it the same way as the evangelicals. They go about it with a different fervor," she says. "We trust that if we do our work and act in our faith, then God can work in many ways."
She says she is concerned that missionaries of all faiths will be mistrusted, that governments will give them less access, if local laws and customs are not respected.
Although Hooper and others decry the cross-cultural methods and the secrecy evangelical missionaries say they are forced to use, these critics have trouble defending the Islamic world's lack of religious freedom. "There are human-rights violations everywhere, even here in the United States against Muslims," Hooper says, all but evading the point.
In a review of international religious freedom that was updated this month, the U.S. State Department found legal restrictions on religious freedom in every Muslim-dominated country it reviewed. Afghanistan was the only place where improving conditions were noted last year, following the military ouster of the ultra-radical Taliban.
The organization's day-to-day activities are handled by an earnest, engaging former banker, Greg Self, who last winter became the first to graduate from the Fort Worth seminary with an Islamic studies degree.
As part of his coursework, the 40-year-old Self set up a Web site for Shahid's group and set about modernizing its materials, digitizing everything from books, lectures and maps and putting them on discs for easy travel abroad. This fall, Self has been helping the Reverend Billy Graham's organization publish materials in Arabic and training local churches in methods for reaching the estimated 75,000 Muslims who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Self began gravitating to the work a decade ago in, of all places, out-of-the-way Tifton, Georgia. An agricultural research station there attracts a small international community, and Self, not long out of Auburn University and working in his first banking job, became a regular dinner guest at a Syrian couple's home.
The next year, he traveled to Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and found himself drawn to the people and culture. "In the middle of the day, things shut down, and men will gather in different places behind closed doors to eat and talk and fellowship," he says. "In Abu Dhabi, I got in with a family there; the husband was a businessman, and he would shut his office down and tell his friends, 'Come see my American visitor.'"
During these kinds of encounters, he says, it was easy to talk about his religion. "That's ministry as I see it," he says. "It's as easy as falling off a log."