FORT WORTH, May 08 (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram)-- Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has created a master's degree program to train students to minister to the country's growing Muslim population.

Seminary officials say the new program is not an effort to proselytize Muslims but rather an attempt to eliminate miseducation and stereotypes.

The degree is a natural progression because Islam is the largest religion in the world, said Samuel Shahid, professor of Islamic studies and program director for the new degree.

"When you think that one of five people in the world belong to Islam and you think so many people don't know about them, that means there will be a lot of misunderstanding," Shahid said.

Still, some Muslims might convert to Christianity, Shahid said.

"We cannot convert people. Our duty as Christians is to spread the Gospel to the world," he said. "It is up to the world to accept it or reject it. We believe if someone is converted, that's the work of the Holy Spirit."

In the past, the Southern Baptist Convention has been criticized for its announced efforts to convert Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hindus. However, Shabir Ally, president of the Islam Information Center, a group that serves Canada and the United States, said the seminary's new program does not disturb him or come as a shock.

"I don't perceive it as any threat," Ally said. "We're caught in an environment that's basically secular. All religions are struggling for their survival."

The Muslim studies degree will be offered beginning in the fall. Students will take courses that cover the Koran, Islam among African- Americans, Arabic, and the historical and cultural differences between Muslims and Christians.

The seminary has formed a partnership with the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. The Beirut seminary is the only Christian seminary in that city that openly converts those from other religions, the seminary said.

Southwestern professors and students have attended the classes at the Beirut seminary, and a Lebanese student will enroll in Southwestern in the fall.

Ally said the Islamic principal of "Da'wah," ministering to other faiths, is slowly catching on within the Muslim faith, too.

Immigrants from Muslim countries are removed from their comfort zone, he said, and have to be tutored in reaching out to those in other faiths. Muslims do not attend seminaries to be instructed in Da'wah, but local mosques may establish small committees that study and practice it.

Imam Moujahed Bakhach, leader of the Islamic Association of Tarrant County, said he participates in monthly interfaith gatherings and community service events as a way to represent the Muslim faith in the overall population, he said.

An estimated 20,000 Muslims live in Tarrant County.

"From an Islamic point of view, we practice so others can see the teaching," Bakhach said. "Da'wah is like an invitation. We're inviting others to understand what we have."

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