It took a two-week trip to Lebanon last spring for Sarah Logan to understand what she was getting into. Among the bullet-ridden buildings in the northern city of Tripoli, the 46-year-old Dallas accountant heard her Baptist missionary hosts describe armed attacks on Christian churches by a faction of Islamic fundamentalists operating out of Syria.
She looked in on a German couple living among the locals in a stark, concrete apartment house on a trash-strewn street. "They were very sharp, very dedicated, very godly," Logan says. "They poured their hearts into their mission work."
The neighbors called them "good Muslims" because of their kindness and generosity, she says. Although the couple's mission was to lead Muslims to Jesus, they were careful not to give any outward signs of their intentions. "They just blended in," Logan remembers. "He was running the apartment complex, which seemed to be his job. Did he go out and say, 'I'm a missionary'? No, even though that is legal in Lebanon. You have to realize that this is one of the more progressive countries in the Middle East in terms of religious freedom, and even there, you would not just go on the street corner and start preaching."
Then there was the success rate, or rather, the failure rate of Western missionaries she met. In the capital city of Beirut, she was struck by how few Muslim children at the Baptist Bible School--an English-language grade school with about 500 students located in the Muslim quarter--actually take up the Christian teachings in the compulsory chapel. "The reason Muslim children go there is because of the quality of the education," she says. "They are Muslim. Their parents constantly ask that they be allowed not to attend chapel."
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As for the German pair, who have lived and worked in the Middle East for 20 years, "they've led very few people to the Lord," she says. "They say Lebanon is 75 percent Muslim. To me, it looked more like 95."
Remarkably, Logan returned to Texas more certain than ever that she wanted to join this quiet Christian crusade. She has bid adieu to her six-figure salary, sold her house and toted up her savings. She expects to be abroad with a Baptist mission team by next summer as a sort of undercover agent for the cause. Because countries in North Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia issue few missionary visas, Logan will go as an accountant, her "platform," as she calls it. (She agreed to talk about all of this under the condition that she be identified by a pseudonym.)
When she is not helping about 20 other missionary families with money matters, she will be living among Muslims, meeting them and endeavoring to get close enough "to share Christ." In that work, which some call "friendship evangelism," she says she is prepared to break the anti-proselytizing laws that are common in many Islamic countries, risk her life and endanger the lives of those she might convert in order to bring the gospel to the unreached.
"There is a chance that if you lead someone to Christ, you are leading them to death, and when I think about that, my heart aches," she says. "You wouldn't be human not to struggle with that. But if the choice is dying in Christ or dying in sin, then, well, the ends justifies the means."
As a missionary student taking Islamic studies courses at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Logan has joined a small but vigorous movement among evangelical Christians to spread their faith to the Muslim world. Under the conservative leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, the seminary last fall became the third evangelical school in the United States offering a program for those who see Islam's 1.2 billion adherents as their spiritual frontier.
Right now, school officials say about 20 students are enrolled as Islamic studies majors, a program involving courses such as "Christian Inquiry Into Islamic Faith and Practice" and "Missionary Approaches to World Religions," as well as field trips and practical lectures on cross-cultural materials and methods.
"We are a seminary, not a university," says Samuel Shahid, a Palestinian-born Christian who heads the program. As such, he says, students are expected to take what they learn and put it into practice saving souls, either among Muslims living in the United States or in the Muslim world.
That aim understandably has its critics. Some question the ethics behind the methods used in the field. Others worry that the urgent need to preach complicates relief efforts in places such as the Sudan, where religious violence is constant. Yet others worry that it breeds mistrust at a time when Christians and Muslims should be working toward acceptance and mutual understanding.
A more appropriate response, though, might just be a big shrug. Evangelicals have long had a dream for missions among Muslims, and despite anecdotal accounts to the contrary, academics and internal church reports suggest they have merely spun their wheels in the desert sand.
"The history is a long experience of failure in terms of conversions," says Kenneth Cracknell, a Cambridge-educated professor who teaches Islamic studies from a more liberal, "compare and contrast" perspective at Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School. "It's surprising how difficult it is. Really, Christians haven't made much of a dent on the Islamic world, and that is true for some very good reasons."
Christian mission work among Muslims has been accelerating for several decades, church officials say, but it took the arrest in Afghanistan of eight Western missionaries, including two young American women, by the ruling Taliban in August last year to give the public a glimpse at how it has worked.
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."
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.
Shahid and the seminary also have plans to evangelize Muslim immigrants in the United States, and their home-front headquarters is located alongside rows of insurance and law offices in a well-tended office park in Arlington. Good News for the Crescent World, a nonprofit Shahid founded in the early 1990s, has been recently invigorated with an infusion of donations from local Bible believers.
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."
A few years after his return, Self came to see the trip as a life-changing experience and enrolled in Shahid's program in Fort Worth.
At the risk of oversimplifying, evangelical Christians looking at Islam apply the same literal significance to its chief text, the Koran, and supporting laws as they do to the Bible. As a result, they come away seeing the religion much the same way as Islamic fundamentalists. "You have to understand the history of Muhammad," says Shahid, referring to the seventh-century prophet whose teachings form the basis of Islam. "There are two phases in that history. When he started out, at age 40, he was a weak person with no followers, and his message was a peaceful message. He was calling people to abandon their idols and worship God, to take care of orphans and widows. His message was a peaceful message. Our culture doesn't have any problem with that message.
"But later on, when Muhammad went to Medina from Mecca, he became more powerful. He had followers, and the tone of the message changed. It became violent. Over this period he waged over 14 wars against his enemies. It is in this second phase where the message is one of war and violence against the enemies of Islam."
Today, Muslims either set aside those teachings as appropriate only for their time, or use them as a basis for radicalism and intolerance of non-Muslims. "We heard a lot from both sides after the September 11 attacks," says Shahid, saying that this historical break in the Koran makes it subject to wide interpretation. "In America, you heard a lot more that this was a peaceful religion. There was less of this from the imams in the Middle East."
Self calls the more liberal interpretations "politically correct Islam," and to him its harshest elements--commands to resist infidels and fight against Jews and Christians--represent the religion's truer form.
To be sure, prominent evangelicals have made news over the past year by isolating various intolerant passages in the Koran, or by disparaging Muhammad's teachings and life. Earlier this month, the Reverend Jerry Falwell called the prophet a "terrorist" in a 60 Minutes interview. He later apologized after the broadcast sparked riots in India and may have pushed Pakistanis to flock to religious candidates in the country's recent parliamentary elections. The Reverend Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptists, called Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile" at a major denomination gathering earlier this year. The Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and successor, got the ball rolling last October when he called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."
"It can be argued that Osama bin Laden is a good Muslim," says Self, whose polite, almost studious manner is an interesting contrast with his vehement beliefs. "Islam is what it is. I believe it is a tool of the devil. As a believer in the Bible, I believe people in the Islamic faith will not go to heaven. That's why it's so urgent for me to go out and tell them."
Just out of college in 1991, Cynthia Wilson felt that same urgency when she signed up with the International Mission Board for a two-year posting at the organization's hospital in Yibla, Yemen. Wilson says the Persian Gulf War, and the fact that she had a good friend in college who was Muslim, moved her to go. "I just felt like God was starting to lay Muslims on my heart," she says.
The Baptists set up the hospital 35 years ago with the purpose of providing free care and medicine and to bring Christianity to the region. "I'd say most of the people who were there were focused first on sharing their faith, not just to fill and heal their bodies," she says. But in Wilson's words, "We were sowing on very hard ground."
The radical Muslim Brotherhood was active in the area, she says, and she knew of one Muslim who was killed after getting too close to the missionaries. "Another ran away right after that." She says many of the staff--including one particularly outspoken doctor--were frustrated by the restrictions on their preaching, but even when they had the ears and hearts of hospital patients or their families, conversions were rare.
Wilson's role at the hospital was to teach the staff's children, but she also came in contact with young Muslim women to whom she was teaching English. She says she talked about her faith to several but ended up leading no Muslims to Jesus during the four years she worked abroad.
Tribal leaders' and converts' families were more likely to uphold Islam than government entities, she says. Family pressures to remain in the faith were intense.
Returning to Fort Worth in 1996, Wilson began taking classes with Shahid. She married another seminarian, started a family and hopes to go abroad again once her two children are a little older.
The difficulty in finding converts in the Muslim world is hardly isolated to the Yemen hospital, which the International Mission Board announced last month is being sold because of lack of funding and a shortage of medical volunteers.
An internal mission board report titled "The Bleeding Edge," based on interviews with 300 missionaries, places the blame on repression and family pressures to remain true to Islam. The report, which was completed last year, found that many Muslims convert because of ulterior motives, among them "a hunger to emigrate, education in the West, a desire for a job and seeking a wife."
The report, written by Ken Perkins, the board's Middle East strategy consultant, says about 80 percent of Muslim-to-Christian converts are men. "Many who are upwardly mobile in society, with a strong education and who are economically secure, will marry a single, female foreign missionary." Most end up leaving the region and resettling in the West, the report states. In one unspecified central Asian country, a pastor performed 14 weddings involving Muslim converts over the past 15 years. Thirteen of the marriages were to foreigners, and 12 of the couples emigrated. "In one North African country, this intermarriage issue has become so acute that [other] expatriate mission agencies have considered not recruiting single, female workers for the near future."
Cracknell, the TCU professor, says Muslims have been an unusually challenging population for Christian evangelicals for at least three reasons. The Koran, which came into existence centuries after the Bible, contains many passages denying the truth of Christian claims, the professor says. "The Koran doesn't allow that Christ died for our sins. Any evangelical witness about Christ being the son of God, that he died for your sins, is a non-starter for Muslims. They've already dealt with that."
The second problem is historical, rooted in the march by European armies on Jerusalem in the name of Christianity at the end of the 11th century. Eyewitness accounts of the Christians' sack and taking of the holy city described blood "flowing up to the knees" in the mosques and synagogues, where no one was spared.
"Most Westerners, George W. Bush included, have no idea of the impact that the Crusades made on the Muslim world," Cracknell says. "The Crusades lasted generally from 1095 until the 14th century, but they are as of yesterday to the Muslim world. After September 11, George W. said we were going on a crusade against terrorism. He climbed down from that and has never used the word since."
Although there are several words for Christian in Arabic, Cracknell says in many parts of the Arab-speaking world the commonly used words for a Christian and for Christianity are salibi and salibiyya, which mean crusader and crusade.
Lastly, he says, vocal support for Israel by evangelical Christian leaders in the United States has helped Muslims paint the religion as "pro-Israel and therefore not pro-Islam."
Early one recent Tuesday, Shahid stood before about a dozen students in a second-floor classroom in the domed hall that dominates the 80-year-old seminary. With its classical architecture and well-shaded grounds, the Baptist school reminds one a bit of an elite institution in the East, save for the students, who are all conservatively dressed and excessively polite.
Shahid, lecturing in his basic survey course, is going over the sectarian differences among Muslims. The students have open on their desks a mainstream textbook, Islam, by Caesar Farah of the University of Minnesota. "Nobody can say we are teaching things that aren't supported and accepted by Muslim scholars," he says.
In his breezy presentation, Shahid likens Sunni Muslims to Baptists because of the autonomy of their mosques. Shiite Muslims, who dominate Iran, are more like Catholics, he says, with the Ayatollah functioning much like the pope.
For a while, Shahid goes along in this strictly academic tone. But he veers wildly as he comes to discuss the annual Shiite celebration of the death of al-Hussein, a seventh-century martyr. "Every year, they re-enact the story of al-Hussein, and I'm going to show you a video," Shahid tells the class. "At this celebration, they hit themselves. They bruise themselves. They cut themselves. Even children do that.
"When you see this video, you will think as many other students have, 'It's impossible to reach out to these people. Impossible!' Well, let me tell you, I know of a country...I don't want to mention names...where the head of a tribe that had been Shiite has come to Christianity. They have a school, and many Christian doctors and teachers go there."
Later, after the class, Shahid declined to name the country or the tribe, saying publicity would only bring trouble.
The existence of such a place no doubt filled Shahid's students with hope. Thus far, some have never seen such a place.
Beyond her recent trip to Lebanon, Sarah Logan says she has met three Muslim families, all recent immigrants, living in the area. In the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth, whole apartment houses have been filled in recent years with women shrouded in veils, their hands painted with henna. "I've gotten to know a Jordanian man and a Sudanese family. I'm also working with two ladies from Syria, teaching them English," Logan says.
She has not changed anyone's religion, she says, but she talks warmly about the cross-cultural experience of waiting for the husband of the Sudanese household, dressed in full Muslim garb, to finish his prayers before dinner. From the Syrian women who insist on her sharing grapes and conversation before the English lessons, she has learned a lot about the Middle Eastern concept of hospitality.
"After September 11, another woman and I brought the Sudanese family an Arabic Bible," she says. "The next time we were there, they gave us Korans. They were very nice Korans."
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