2016-06-30

When the Taliban captured humanitarian relief workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer in August, religious and political leaders in the United States were aghast. The Taliban accused the aid workers of being on a secret campaign to convert Muslims. It seemed yet another sign of the Taliban's dishonesty, extremism and paranoia.

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Antioch Community Church statements about the release of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry
But now that Curry and Mercer and the six other Shelter Now relief workers are safe, a different story can be told. The Taliban was partly right. Curry and Mercer did spend time in Afghanistan evangelizing--in violation of Afghani law. More significantly, they are part of a widespread and rapidly growing effort among American Christians to convert Muslims around the world.

They are warriors, in other words, in what can fairly be described as a Christian jihad against Islam.

Although the two women say that most of their time was spent providing practical humanitarian care, Curry has conceded that about 20% of the Taliban's charges against them were valid. She admits, for instance, that she gave a boy a book about Jesus, and that she and Mercer showed at least one Afghani family a movie known as "the Jesus" film. The Jesus film is a popular tool of missionaries seeking converts. Translated into 685 languages, the 1979 film was made for $2 million by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright with the financial backing of conservative oilman Nelson "Bunker" Hunt.

It is not particularly surprising that Curry and Mercer did a bit of proselytizing while there. The church where they are members regularly sponsors misisonaries in foreign countries to "introduce people to God and see them 'discipled' as followers of Christ," says Jeff Abshire, pastor of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas.

The group that sponsored the women, Shelter Now, is part of a larger network of evangelical Christians that has sprung up in the last decade to target Muslims for conversion to Christianity. Since 1990, the number of missionaries in Islamic countries has quadrupled. Mission experts estimate they have spoken to or given Christian material to about 334 million people in that time. Franklin Graham's assertion last week that Islam is "wicked, violent, and not of the same God" also flows from this movement.

Groups such as Youth With a Mission and the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, sponsor two-week jaunts to places like Kyrgyzstan to convert Muslims to Christianity.

For Christians who can't travel, there are guides to help them pray specifically for converts in these areas.

Indeed, Youth With a Mission has even called for 30 days of prayer during Ramadan--not in solidarity with Muslims but rather to convert them. Lee DeYoung of Word of Hope, a sympathetic Christian group, says the involvement of some Muslims with terrorism has weakened the faith of many other Muslims, making them susceptible to conversion. "This could be a time of great opportunity," DeYoung told CBNWorld.com, the website of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

Evangelicals & Islam
Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham stirs controversy by calling Islam "wicked and violent."

Muslim Group Wants Meeting With Graham

Plus:
Antioch Community Church statements about the release of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry
Missionaries like Curry and Mercer who go to live in these countries sometimes seem to bend local laws in order to gain a foothold in these countries. Paul Filidis, director of Youth With a Mission's international communications office, said its members use "any opportunity," "legitimate entry point," or "tunneling" technique to place missionaries in situations where they will become trusted friends of local Muslims. He said they often get jobs, become aid workers, or study in universities as a way to get into Muslim countries.

Groups go to great lengths to make sure missionaries have the educational tools they need. "In many Muslim nations, prayer guides are smuggled across borders hidden in suitcases," reports CBNWorld.com. Other Christian groups and companies have grown up specializing in getting the Jesus film into far-flung corners of the world.

Filidis defends these practices. "The Muslims do the same," he says. "They don't have any room to complain."

Is there anything wrong with this? So what if Curry and Mercer might have fibbed to the Taliban, especially since it's for a cause they consider noble.

Unfortunately, when aid workers proselytize on the sly it can create problems for other humanitarian aid workers. Donna Derr of Church World Service, a mainline Protestant aid group, says her group doesn't proselytize and that the new wave of evangelical missionaries "sometimes makes it a little more difficult for those of us who don't share that agenda."

She said the Shelter Now controversy had the potential to put workers from groups like hers and others--such as CARE, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders--in danger.

"The reality is that situations like this cause increased scrutiny to any organization understood to be faith-based," she said.

But for these new missionaries, going overseas without evangelizing would defeat one of their major goals, since they are equally concerned with feeding bellies and saving souls. Consequently, most of these groups are quite explicit in pushing conversion as a key part of their agenda.

Evangelicals & Islam
Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham stirs controversy by calling Islam "wicked and violent."

Muslim Group Wants Meeting With Graham

Plus:
Antioch Community Church statements about the release of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry
One group called the Network for Strategic Missions, based in Virginia Beach, Va., says on its site that "an escalating cadre of Christian volunteers have traveled thousands of miles...at their own expense to remote outposts...Their presence, skill and commitment has helped Christian workers reach people and get results, even in Muslim-dominated areas."

The aggressive attitude extends even to the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention. Four years ago, the denomination reorganized its International Missions Board to focus on the part of the world where Muslims live. That year, the Convention published a prayer guide for use when praying for the conversion of Muslims. They followed with similar prayer guides aimed at Hindus and Jews two years later. This year, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary even created a master's degree program to help students minister to Muslims.

The Christian conversion movement was born in 1989, when an evangelist named Luis Bush dubbed the area of the world evangelicals were targeting "The 10/40 Window", said to have the largest population of non-Christians in the world. The area, also called "the resistant belt," extends from 10 degrees to 40 degrees North of the equator, and stretches from North Africa across to China. It includes Indonesia, Sudan, Morocco, Ivory Coast, southern China, Iran, Turkmenistan and other countries.

Bush lays out the movement's goals clearly: "From its center in The 10/40 Window, Islam is reaching out energetically to all parts of the globe; in similar strategy, we must penetrate the heart of Islam with the liberating truth of the gospel. It is evident that the forces of Satan have great power and will resist all attempts to be overcome. If we are to storm the enemy's territory, we must put on the full armor of God and fight with the weapons of spiritual warfare."

This movement has emerged at a time when many Western leaders are trying to embrace Islam as an "Abrahamic faiths" and a peaceful world religion. On Monday night, President Bush hosted a formal Ramadan celebration with dozens of Muslim leaders. The day before, Pope John Paul II invited representatives of the world's religions-particularly Christians and Muslims--to Assisi, Italy, for a daylong prayer for peace Jan. 24. The National Council of Churches, which represents 36 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox groups, has begun monthly meetings with American Muslim leaders to promote better understanding.

Evangelicals & Islam
Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham stirs controversy by calling Islam "wicked and violent."

Muslim Group Wants Meeting With Graham

Plus:
Antioch Community Church statements about the release of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry
But as the Franklin Graham comments illustrate, many evangelicals are quite open about their contempt for Islam.

Despite the problems these missionaries may cause, it should be noted that the behavior is completely consistent with their religious worldview--and extraordinarily courageous. They have subjected themselves to great discomfort and in some cases physical danger to do what they see as a selfless act--saving someone's soul.

The root of this impulse is in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Many conservative Christians believe that any faith that isn't Christianity isn't valid. And so, they evangelize even when doing so is unpleasant--or downright dangerous.

The problem is that some Muslims essentially believe the same thing about their faith--that one of their main duties is to convert non-Muslims. And so, the two faiths' theological clash is the backdrop to Samuel Huntington's political theory of the "clash of civilizations." This theory holds that the West--and by extension, Christianity--and Islam are in a titanic struggle.

And the result is: only one of the two cultures will be left standing at the end.

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