Is The Islam Religion Harmless?
The U.S. State Department has documented numerous instances of religious persecution overseas against Muslim converts to Christianity. What is not so well known are the threats against such converts in the United States.
Some have simply been shunned by their families. Others have been kidnapped by family members and friends, and put on a plane back home. All are reluctant to ask for protection from U.S. law enforcement, especially those converts with Arabic surnames who are leery of getting their names on a U.S. police report. However, there are no known instances of converts from Islam to Christianity who have been killed in the United States for their decision to leave their faith.
Most established Christian denominations are unaware of the situation, as converts attend Bible study groups in their own language or small hidden churches that appear on no denominational radar. No academic research has been done on such converts. The closest figures are those by David Barrett, co-author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, who estimates that within U.S. borders, 50,000 Christians per year turn to Islam while 20,000 Muslims adopt Christianity.
Befriending the latter, the men say, is a dicey proposition.
"It's written in their books," one said. "You cannot be a friend with unbelievers."
'Christ in the Koran'
The Rev. Esper Ajaj, the Syrian-born pastor of Washington Arabic Baptist Church at 4605 Massachusetts Ave. NW in the District, concedes that there are dangers to working with Muslims. Situated within walking distance of American University, he gets a fair amount of seekers at his door.
"They want to ask questions," he said. "Sometimes they come to pray here. Then they have a cup of coffee, and I talk to them. Then I discuss the greatness of Christ in the Koran.
"We've seen more Muslims in [the 1990s] become Christians more than any time in history. If they are open-minded, it is easy. If they are closed-minded, it is not."
He is writing a book tentatively titled, "Difficult Questions a Muslim Asks" but confesses that "I don't know if I'll put my name on it."
"Look at Salman Rushdie," he said, referring to the Muslim author from India whose 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" earned him a death warrant from Persian mullahs.
"One guy called my wife and said, 'Let Esper die.' They could give a person $1,000 and shoot me, and no one would know."
Mr. Ajaj said Christianity is not logical to a Muslim mind that cannot fathom worshipping someone who was ridiculed, then killed. Muslims are divided on whether Jesus even died, and the Koran said Jesus was snatched up to heaven by God before the Crucifixion. Some Muslim commentators think Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene died in His place, and none believe He rose from the dead.
The Rev. Hisham Kamel, pastor of the Arabic Evangelical Church in Temple City, Calif., said the certainty of heaven is what draws Muslims to risk losing family and friends when they accept Christ.
"In Islam, the only way they know they'll get to heaven is if they take part in jihad," he said.
Sometimes even offering sympathy to a convert brings opposition. One Washington area pastor asked not to be named because of a nearby mosque that has been scrutinizing him.
"I have seven Muslims who have converted," he said. "I do not want any trouble."
Ann Buwalda, an immigration lawyer for Just Law International in Fairfax, said she's been approached by Pakistani converts who are refugees. One man, "Masih," was working at a retail store in Northern Virginia, she said, when a Muslim co-worker from Pakistan noticed he was wearing a cross. The man asked Masih why he was wearing it.
"I am Christian," said Masih. The Muslim co-worker became angry, called him derogatory names in their native language, shoved him in a hallway and thereafter tried to get him fired and threatened him after work one night.
"He told the security guards at the retail store, so the employer has separated the two," Ms. Buwalda said.
"I worry about these people. I have given him a cell phone so he can call 911 if these guys stalk him. He has informally told police about it but filed no report" because, she adds, most refugees view American law enforcement in the same light as police from their own countries: people to be avoided at all costs.
She tells of another young female convert who wears a cross and who was stalked by a Muslim Pakistani taxi driver in the retail store where she works. Yet another Pakistani woman who converted to Christianity was threatened with death by Pakistani neighbors. "That kind of stuff, it's frightening when it happens," Ms. Buwalda said.
Victor Gill, a Pakistani immigrant who lives in Philadelphia and who leads a ministry called Christian Voice of Pakistan, said converts are regularly harassed in the United States.
"The threat is real," he said. "They think they are doing something to earn credit with God when they kill Christians. When John Walker Lindh converted to Islam, his family supported him. But not so for the converts here. The Koran said people who leave Islam must be killed."
Actually, that instruction is in the Hadith, a collection of the sayings of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It has been enforced in varying ways. Female converts are usually imprisoned in a room — for months or years — as a sort of psychological torture until they recant. As for the men, all the traditional schools of Shariah (Islamic) law stipulate that "apostates" — those who leave their faith — must die. But before they die, they lose all civil liberties. Their children are taken away, their marriage is dissolved, they lose their family inheritance and they cannot be buried in a Muslim graveyard.
One dissident to this traditional interpretation of the Hadith is Taha Jabir Alawani, president of the Graduate School for Islamic Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va. He said the apostate rule was formed in the early seventh century, when leaving one's religion was seen as a traitorous act.
"Mine is a minority opinion," he said. "There's a certain hadith [verse] that said if anyone changes his or her religion, he deserves to be killed. In my research, I found that was linked to some people who were trying to penetrate the Muslim community at the time in Medina. They came from Jewish or pagan communities, and announced they had become Muslims. Then after a few days, they announced they had found this religion to be very bad and they had decided to go back to their religions: Judaism, paganism, whatever.
"The Prophet was trying to stop that kind of conspiracy so he said that if anyone changes from the religion he has adopted, we will kill him. Islamic jurists [ scholars] have not paid attention to [the exceptional nature] of that event. They have generalized that hadith to say if anyone practices apostasy, we should kill him."
Not only has the Hadith been misunderstood, Mr. Alawani said, but the famous Koranic command that there is "no compulsion" in the choice of one's religion has been ignored.
"Everyone has the full right to choose his or her religion," he said. "No one should interfere with that." He is writing a book on the topic but jokes that it should never be released in countries where Islamic law is in full force.
"I should stay away from Pakistan and other places, or I would lose my neck," he said. "Some people living in America even, they don't like those kind of opinions. They will say: 'Don't listen to him. He is trying to Americanize Islam.'"