Evangelical Christians cause a stir by praying for the conversion of Muslims during Islam’s holy month

May 18, 2009

Prayers aim to convert Muslims
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Some Christians are praying for Muslims’ conversion during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, but others say the timing is wrong.

ARLINGTON — Mike Humphries has been saying special prayers every day during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month.

But he’s not a Muslim. He’s a Christian praying that Muslims will convert to Christianity.

While many Christian leaders say it’s time to reach out to Muslims in friendship, Christian missionaries who seek Muslim converts said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks should be a wake-up call that Christians should pray more for Muslims and step up proselytizing in the Islamic world.

“We’re trying to reaffirm our commitment to loving Muslims and to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them wherever we find them,” said Don McCurry, president of the Colorado-based Ministries to Muslims.

The efforts might be well-intended, but some Muslims find them insulting.

“I don’t see it as a good gesture at all; I see it as very offensive,” said Yushau Sodiq, a Muslim who teaches about Islam at Texas Christian University.

Humphries, a member of Grace Community Church, is taking his cue from one of several prayer books published by Christian groups for Ramadan. He’s following one published by WorldChristian News & Books. A similar prayer book published by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention was distributed at First Baptist Church and Tate Springs Baptist Church, both in Arlington.

Cliff Lea, Tate Springs Baptist Church minister of missions mobilization, said the churchwide effort to pray for Muslims is not meant to be offensive.

“We are simply obeying the commandments of our leader, our Lord, to pray for and share Christ’s love with all people,” Lea said. “It is not meant to be critical of their beliefs.”

The Southern Baptists stirred controversy several years ago by praying for the conversion of Jews during their High Holy Days, which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur. The Mission Board has also published prayer books for the holy days of Buddhism and Hinduism.

“The prayer guides are designed to help Southern Baptists understand another world religion and the people who follow it and to help them pray that God would reveal himself to them during this special time when they are seeking God,” said Mark Kelly, a Mission Board spokesman.

Earlier this month, the Rev. James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s second-largest denomination, issued a statement calling on his 16 million members to fast and pray Dec. 16 for God to “reveal himself through Jesus Christ to Muslims.”

Ramadan, the month when Muslims say special prayers and fast, is based on the lunar calendar and is expected to end Dec. 16.

Christians and Muslims both believe in the God recognized by Abraham, but Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet, while Christians believe he is the son of God. Muslims believe the Quran is the authoritative expression of God’s will, as told to the prophet Muhammad.

Kenneth Cracknell, a theology professor at TCU, said tension between evangelical Christians and other religions is not a new phenomenon – especially with Islam.

“Both are missionary religions, and both have a vision that one day everybody will become Christians or everybody will become Muslims,” Cracknell said.

He said that for more than 1,000 years, Muslim and Christian rulers expected their subjects to convert to their religion when they expanded their empires. Now, he said, both religions are pouring millions of dollars into the latest battlefield of missionary work: Africa.

Scott Jones, director of the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University, said he supports Christian efforts to evangelize – but not now.

“In light of Sept. 11, the crucial thing is to be neighborly … which means you de-emphasize evangelism temporarily,” Jones said. “Now is a time to promote understanding and inclusion in American culture.”

But a few Christian missionaries argue Islam encourages violence, making missionary attempts more urgent.

“Sept. 11 means to me that fervent Muslims took the teaching of Islam very seriously,” McCurry said.

McCurry said he believes it’s time to bolster Christian proselytization and said he has been getting calls from Christian groups nationwide about how to do that.

Ashton “Tat” Stewart, director of the Colorado-based Persian Ministries for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, said he also has been inundated with calls from Christian groups asking about evangelizing in the Islamic world.

Stewart, who speaks Persian and works with Iranian Christians, said the key to evangelizing Muslims is approaching them in their own language and “demonstrating” Christianity by meeting their basic needs.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he doesn’t object to Christians such as Humphries praying for Muslims, but he takes issue with the kind of missionary work espoused by Stewart.

“They come in with a lot of money, a lot of backing, a lot of resources and they use these to their advantage,” Hooper said. “We’re confident in our faith, but when they go to vulnerable individuals, this is when we have some objections.”

Eight aid workers, including two from Waco, were jailed in Afghanistan in early August on charges of spreading Christianity. The eight were freed by the Northern Alliance after the fall of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Among them were Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, both graduates of Baylor University.

Cracknell said missionaries might be well-intentioned, but their efforts have barely made a dent.

“In Muslim countries, the churches are extremely small and in some places are barely tolerated,” Cracknell said. “In other countries like Turkey and Egypt, there are hardly any Christian converts. In fact, it is very rare to hear of somebody who has been converted from Islam.”

But Stewart contends he is making progress. He said the number of Christian Iranian churches outside Iran has grown from zero to about 100 since 1979, including more than 30 in the United States. One of them, the Iranian Baptist Church of Arlington, conducts services in Persian at Lamar Baptist Church.

The Rev. Diba Betdaniel, pastor of the Iranian Baptist Church of Arlington, said he is encouraged to hear Christians are praying for Muslims’ conversion.

“That’s what we need to do,” Diba said. “We need to pray that God will work and touch people’s hearts.”