Inside one Southern university, Christian
missionaries are being trained to go undercover in
the Muslim world and win converts for Jesus. Their stated goal: to wipe
By Barry Yeoman
May/June 2002 Issue
At 8 o'clock on a warm Monday morning in January, 20 students
file into Rick Love's classroom at Columbia International University in
South Carolina. Eyes glassy from writing papers all weekend, they clutch
Styrofoam cups of Folgers as they settle into their seats. In front, an
overhead projector hums; it is hooked up to the instructor's laptop,
ready for a morning full of PowerPoint presentations.
Outside, CIU's piney campus is quiet. Most of the student body has not
yet returned from Christmas break. But these students, all evangelical
Christians, have arrived two weeks early for an intensive course on how
to win converts in Islamic countries. They're learning from the master:
Love is the international director of Frontiers, the largest Christian
group in the world that focuses exclusively on proselytizing to Muslims.
With 800 missionaries in 50 countries, Frontiers' reach extends from the
South Pacific to North Africa, with every major Islamic region in
Love is 49, a black-leather-jacket-wearing whirlwind of a man with a
salt-and-pepper beard and a quick sense of humor. He's a chronic
multitasker, routinely praying aloud while drinking coffee and
simultaneously reviewing his lecture notes. Little known outside the
missionary world, he's an icon within it-an evangelistic entrepreneur
who wins admirers with what he calls his "middle linebacker"
personality. His seminars are usually closed to the media and the
This morning's lesson is about going undercover. Many of Love's students
are missionaries themselves, temporarily home from assignments in places
ranging from Kazakhstan to Kenya. They know firsthand that evangelism is
illegal in many Islamic nations, and they face expulsion if their true
intentions become known. Love's lesson for today is how to mask one's
identity while secretly working to convert Muslims. Evangelists, he
explains, should always have a ready, nonreligious explanation for their
presence in hostile areas.
Love fixes his gaze on a studious, spiky-haired missionary dressed in
Patagonia clothing. " If people ask you, 'Why are you here?'" he asks,
"what do you say?" The young man, on leave from Southeast Asia, squirms
in his chair. His jaw opens but nothing comes out. "Bingo!" Love says
with a smile. "You bite your fingernails, and people go, 'Of course he's
not hiding anything.'" Love notes that before he went to western
Indonesia to proselytize among Sundanese Muslims, he went back to school
and earned his credentials to become an English instructor. That way, he
says, he had an excuse to be in the country. "I could look someone in
the eye and say, 'I am an English teacher,'" he explains. "'I have a
degree and I'm here to teach.'
That, he says, is the model for winning converts in the Islamic world:
Find another pretext to be in the country. Build friendships with the
locals. Once you've developed trust, then it's time to try to gain new
believers. But don't reveal your true purpose too early. "How did Jesus
explain why he was there?" Love asks the class. "Indirectly," volunteers
a veteran missionary. "He'd say, 'Why do you think I'm here?'"
"Did Jesus ever lie?" In unison, the class says, "No."
"But did Jesus raise his hand and say, 'I swear to tell the truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth?'" Again, 20 voices call out,
There are lots of ways to camouflage yourself, Love tells the students.
In Indonesia, evangelists ran a quilt-making business to provide cover
for Western missionaries, allowing them to employ-and proselytize-scores
The students nod thoughtfully; they agree that Muslims must be reached
by whatever means possible. Their zeal is helping to fuel the biggest
evangelical foray into the Muslim world since missionary pioneer Samuel
Zwemer declared Islam a "dying religion" in 1916 and predicted that
"when the crescent wanes, the Cross will prove dominant." Over the past
decade, evangelical leaders say, the number of missionaries trying to
convert Muslims has jumped fourfold, from several hundred in the early
1990s to more than 3,000 today. Many are sent by the Southern Baptist
Convention, with the rest coming from a network of church- supported
groups with names like Christar and Arab World Ministries.
Missionaries work in remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan; former
Soviet republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; Middle Eastern hot
spots like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; and African countries like Somalia
"We see Islam as the final frontier," says David Cashin, a professor of
Intercultural Studies at CIU who used to don Muslim clothing and pursue
converts in the tea shops of Kaliakoir, Bangladesh. Like many of his
fellow evangelicals, Cashin regards the Islamic world as a hinterland
that must be penetrated before the Messiah can return. "History is
coming to an end," he says. "If you believe Christ is coming back, why
has he delayed 2,000 years? We haven't finished the task he set out to
do." That task, he says, is to win converts among all the world's ethnic
The growing movement to hunt souls in Muslim lands-by missionaries who
often pass as aid workers, teachers, or business owners-has raised
hackles outside the evangelical world. Missionaries themselves
acknowledge that their work endangers the lives of converts, and critics
charge that it disrupts the delivery of humanitarian aid and fuels
resentment of Westerners during one of the most dangerous moments in
recent history. But to those at the
heart of the movement, including Rick Love's students, any damage done
by their work is outweighed by the importance of their mission: to wipe
out Islam. "I believe it's a false religion, and I'd like to see it be
gone," says Kim McHugh, a 36-year-old CIU student who is training to
convert Iranian refugees in Turkey. Her husband Brent agrees. "If they
don't have a chance to experience Jesus," he says, "they're going to
For most Americans, the first glimpse into Muslim-world evangelism came
last November, when the Taliban created heroes out of two fresh-faced
missionaries named Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. Incarcerated for
three months on charges of spreading Christianity, the women made
headlines after U.S. Special Forces helicopters whisked them away from a
prison outside Ghazni, Afghanistan. "They had a calling to serve the
poorest of the poor," President Bush said at a White House ceremony
shortly after the Hollywood-style rescue. "Their faith was a source of
hope that kept them from being discouraged." But Curry and Mercer were
doing more than relief work: Once home, they admitted to violating
Afghan law by showing "part of a Jesus film" and giving a Christian
storybook to a Muslim family. Another missionary from their
organization, John Weaver, also garnered wide-spread media attention for
his refusal to leave Afghanistan despite the growing anti-American
Like many missionaries in Islamic countries, Weaver trained at CIU, one
of three schools in the United States with a degree program specifically
devoted to converting Muslims. A campus of boxy brick buildings located
at the end of a wooded boulevard in Columbia, South Carolina, CIU has
the look of a second-tier state college. But rather than publicizing
frat parties and rock concerts, the colorful posters on its walls and
bulletin boards announce prayer services and opportunities for overseas
missions. In the student center, next to a wide-screen TV, a book
provides Christian reviews of Hollywood movies. (Harry Potter? Amistad?
Billy Elliot? All rated "very offensive.") Faculty and some 1,000
students eat together in the cafeteria, praying over smothered chicken
and talking spiritedly about lessons from the New Testament.
During this two-week "winterim" session, it's hard to find anyone of
traditional college age. Many of the students are from the front lines
of missionary work, men and women who have spent years in Muslim
countries. Christian Dedrick is squeezing in some additional schooling
before returning to the field next year. A lanky 33-year-old with thick
blond sideburns, a pageboy haircut, and oval, horn-rimmed glasses, he
has an easygoing style and an enthusiasm for challenging conversation.
Pass him on the street, and the first impression would be tweedy
For two years, Dedrick worked in a small port city in Kazakhstan,
teaching English and living with a local family, sleeping on a cotton
bedroll in a sparsely furnished room he shared with his host's two sons.
Although the family were devout Muslims-the father considered it a sin
to leave the faith-Dedrick spent much of his time trying to persuade
them to convert to Christianity. He read them the Bible and showed them
a Kazakh translation of the "Jesus film," a Campus Crusade for Christ
movie that graphically depicts the crucifixion of a blue-eyed Jesus. "We
wrestled over that a few times," he remembers. "I'd say, 'I have to tell
you what changed my life. You don't have to accept it, but I have to
tell it.'" While the family didn't convert, neither did it evict the
American, whose $50 in rent represented a sizable chunk of the monthly
Like the other missionaries who have come to CIU, Dedrick is constantly
reevaluating his evangelical technique. He rejects his old attitude as
"pretty paternalistic," saying he'll ask more questions before making
judgments about what he sees when he returns to Central Asia next year.
But he still believes Islam is the work of the devil. "People cheer at
baseball games," Dedrick says. "I cheer at worship services. And when I
go to a culture 10, 000 miles away and don't see that righteousness,
that holiness, reflected in that culture, I get sad. Satan has deceived
them away from a relationship with their creator God."
For all their work, Dedrick and his fellow missionaries win few new
believers. That doesn't seem to faze them. "My goal is not to convert a
Muslim," says Al Dobra, a 45-year-old with a gravelly voice and military
haircut who befriends Muslim businessmen in Nairobi, Kenya, and then
tries to convince them of Islam's fallacies. "My goal is to plant a tiny
seed that will fester and gnaw and grow, so that eventually they will
begin to question their religion. My prayer is that they will become
restless sleepers and troubled by what they hear. That's a horrible
thing to wish on someone."
That absolute certainty that Christianity is the only truth-and that
other religions are satanically inspired-runs throughout the two weeks
of Rick Love's course. One morning Tom Seckler, a dark-haired missionary
with a bland face and thick black mustache, tacks the Cambodian flag to
the classroom bulletin board and lays a map of the country on the
overhead projector. Seckler's mission agency, World Team, has targeted
the Western Cham, an impoverished Muslim minority group in Cambodia that
was massacred by the thousands by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Despite
World Team's efforts, Seckler estimates there are only about 25
Christian converts, some of whom meet Tuesday nights in Phnom Penh.
"Please pray for the Cham people," he asks his classmates. "There's a
degree of self-righteousness among the Cham. They think they're okay. We
don't see a big spiritual hunger among them."
The class begins to worship, eyes closed, each person offering a
spontaneous request. "Lord, we come into your presence and we ask that
you would give us a fresh sense of your burden and your love for Muslim
people, especially the Cham," says Love. He falls silent, and then Brent
McHugh takes over: "I pray, Lord, that the Cham people do hunger, and
realize what they're missing in Christ."
The anti-Islam prayers reflect CIU's official attitude toward what it
considers a competitor religion. Prominent on the university's Web site
is an essay posted shortly after September 11. "To claim that 'Islam'
means 'peace' is just one more attempt to mislead the public," it reads.
"Muslim leaders have spoken of their goal to spread Islam in the West
until Islam becomes a dominant, global power." The essay was written by
Warren Larson, who directs the university's Muslim Studies program and
served as a mentor to John Weaver, the Afghanistan missionary. A former
missionary himself, Larson fears that Christianity might be losing the
race for world domination. "Islam is biologically taking over the
world," he says. "They're having babies faster than we are."
Before coming to CIU, Larson worked for 23 years in Dera Ghazi Khan,
Pakistan, trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. He and his wife
hosted prayer meetings, Bible studies, and informal gatherings where
Muslims came for tea and Coke. Many of their neighbors showed up- some
to learn about their religion, but most for more practical reasons.
"People had the idea that foreigners have money," Larson says. "A lot of
them would come because you might
be able to help them get to America. Or they would come asking for help:
'My father, he's sick. Can you write a letter of introduction to the
hospital?' Some of them would be willing to talk about Christianity.
Most would not."
Larson was indeed rich by local standards. Not only did he hire Muslims
for domestic help, but he also owned household luxuries like a
refrigerator. And while the Larsons often engaged in community
service-visiting widows, taking people to the doctor-they were still
seen by some neighbors as the embodiment of the West. One morning, 200
armed Muslims stormed Larson's home, throwing bricks at his ministry's
two Land Rovers, kicking down his door, and setting fire to religious
literature. After that, Larson says, "whenever we would hear something
that sounded like a riot, it would scare us."
The attack on Larson's home came in the midst of fierce anti-U.S.
sentiment in the Muslim world, which culminated in the takeover of the
American embassy in Iran in 1979. Now, in the wake of September 11, some
critics say evangelists are again fueling distrust and resentment toward
Westerners. Last October, Islamic militants opened fire on a church
built by missionaries in Pakistan, killing 16 Christians, and Muslim
rebels threatened to execute two missionaries kidnapped in the
"The issue is the disproportional power relationship," says Ibrahim
Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a
Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to promote a positive
image of Muslims. "They use their resources to coerce people to do what
they want them to do." Hooper remembers reviewing a proposal by a
Christian agency to send veterinarians to help impoverished Fulani
cattle herders in West Africa. But the plan had a caveat: "You don't get
the veterinarian unless you take the missionary," he says. " When people
are in desperate circumstances, they'll do things they otherwise
Robert Macpherson, security director for the aid group care, remembers
serving as a U.S. Marine in Somalia during the early 1990s, when some
200 organizations were working to stave off famine in the war-ravaged
country. "It was dangerous, dangerous, dangerous," he recalls.
Evangelicals only made matters worse, he says, by showing up at
food-distribution sites and handing out Christian literature, giving the
impression that food aid was contingent on conversion to Christianity.
"The next thing we know, they got themselves in the middle of a riot,"
Macpherson recalls. Angered by the missionaries, Somalis climbed over
one another to steal food and set trucks on fire. "They were desperate,"
he says. "They were dying. This was an emergency."
At CIU, missionaries-in-training learn to try to avoid such hostility by
blending into the cultures they visit. In class one morning, Rick Love
opens his Bible to the book of Acts, in which the apostle Paul takes on
a disciple named Timothy. Before the two men go out to proselytize among
the Jews, Paul takes Timothy to have his foreskin cut. "He says, 'Yo,
Tim, you wanna join my team? You gotta get circumcised,'" Love tells his
students. "How's that for high standards? Wow!"
Love is hardly suggesting that his male students undergo the knife. He's
making a bigger point: To win converts in a foreign culture, you must
take on the behaviors of that culture, even adopting the rituals of
another religion. The practice is called "contextualization," and it's
one of the hottest topics among missionaries. The idea is to get away
from the old -fashioned practice of importing American-style
Christianity, complete with wooden pews and Western hymns. Instead,
missionaries today are more likely to take on Muslim names, dress in
veils and other local clothing, prostrate themselves during prayer, and
even fast during Ramadan. "We must become Muslims to reach Muslims,"
says Cashin, the CIU professor.
If a first-century evangelist can undergo circumcision to win converts,
how far can a 21st- century missionary go? At lunch, Christian Dedrick
takes a spoonful of his wife's homemade broccoli soup and ponders the
question aloud. "Should we call ourselves Muslims?" he asks. "The old
meaning of the word is 'one who submits.' In Jordan, the missionaries
had 'Jesus mosques.' They called themselves 'Muslims of the Messiah.' We
wrestled with that. We wanted to call God 'Allah' so we could be on that
relational level with Muslims."
Dedrick drew the line at appearing too Muslim-but others haven't. "One
team in the Middle East has a policy of not allowing missionaries to
identify themselves as Christians," reports the journal Evangelical
Missions Quarterly. Another team "called themselves Jesus- ists" and
presented themselves as "one of many Sufi or dervish mystical orders."
The journal Missiology says that missionaries urge Palestinian students
to adopt Christian beliefs-but to still call themselves Muslim.
When pressed, evangelicals acknowledge that they often blur the
distinctions between the two religions and fail to disclose their
intentions. "The line between guile and withholding information is very,
very thin," says one missionary at CIU who asked not to be identified
for security reasons. He admits that he rarely tells his Muslim
neighbors why he's living among them-demurely calling himself a
"language student"-and that he's been forced to terminate friendships
with those who ask too many questions. "To have integrity in that is a
challenge," he says.
Many Islamic and Christian leaders alike believe that evangelical groups
often fail the integrity challenge. "Once you have this kind of sneaky
way, the respect for the holy is gone," says Sayyid Syeed, secretary
general of the Islamic Society of North America. Sacred rituals, such as
prostration and the Ramadan fast, are used to lure people away from
their own religion. "The missionary," says Syeed, "is seen as someone
who is stabbing you in the back."
For Donna Derr, the honesty issue is not an abstract one. She's the
associate director of international emergency response for Church World
Service, which provides aid in more than 80 countries while barring
outright proselytizing. From her perspective, Christian
evangelizing-particularly by missionaries who masquerade as humanitarian
workers-makes it harder for legitimate aid organizations to relieve
poverty, malnutrition, and disease. " Groups that have the need to
proselytize color us all with the same brush," says Derr. As a result,
she says, it's harder to win the trust of those communities her group is
trying to serve. She recalls one Southeast Asian nation where rural
families suffer from debilitating diseases. "It was difficult to get the
local governments to allow us to come in," Derr says, "because they had
somebody in the past who tried to start a Christian church. They'd say,
'Oh, your name is Church World Service. You're going to do the same
thing.'" In other cases, she adds, evangelicals provoked so much
resentment "that the other groups doing aid had to pull out, simply
because it was too dangerous."
Derr and others note that there is another model for missionary work,
one followed by many mainline Christians: serving those in need without
actively recruiting new believers. For example, Catholic Relief Services
delivers food and blankets to Afghanistan, builds drinking-water systems
in Morocco, and promotes small-business development among Egyptian
women-all without trying to recruit Muslims to Catholicism. "We reflect
our beliefs in our actions, in our relations, in our respect for
people," says Ken Hackett, the agency's director. "We don't ask even our
own staff to convert. If you're a good Muslim, you're a good Muslim."
Rick Love admits that some evangelical groups "are unwise in how they
share their faith." But even if it takes some stretching of the truth,
he adds, it would be wrong to ignore the call to share the Word. "That
is what the Bible teaches," he says, "so I could never be part of an
organization that focuses on deed only." As Love sees it, the lack of
religious freedom in many Islamic countries forces missionaries to
conceal their intentions. "I want the freedom to share my faith with you
and not be persecuted," he says, "and I want you to have the same with
me. It should be a matter of persuasion, and not political power."
On the last day of the "winterim" session, things turn decidedly somber
in Love's classroom. It's the lesson in which the instructor reminds his
students that their work can have dire- even deadly-consequences for the
people they try to convert. He refers to Curry and Mercer, the two
Americans who were airlifted from a Taliban prison two months earlier.
"What happened with Dayna and Heather is not typical," he says. "We do
have people imprisoned, but
usually you're asked to leave. We get a ticket out of the country-but
the new believers, what do they face? Loss of job, children taken away,
imprisonment, torture, even martyrdom."
Of all the criticisms launched at Christian evangelists, this is the one
that's least disputed: Missionary work often puts local believers in
serious danger. "It is common for mission agencies to be expelled from
countries awash with persecution," reports an internal study by the
Southern Baptist Convention based on 300 interviews in 45 countries.
"Virtually overnight, local believers are left destitute and exposed."
The study cites Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as
particularly repressive. In one East African community, it reports,
converts were "systematically hunted down and martyred by adherents to
Islam. Other believers are displaced; they live in refugee camps; they
reside in adjacent countries, or in the West." The common thread among
the victims? "All those martyred had a relationship to expatriate
Christians that contributed to their deaths." In another country unnamed
in the report, "significant numbers of Muslim-background believers were
arrested and tortured due to their relationship to the expatriate
Tahir Lavi converted to Christianity during secret midnight Bible-study
sessions at a madrassah in Kashmir where he was studying the Koran. His
parents disowned him, and he was forced to flee after a group of men
threatened to kill him. For the past 13 years, he has lived in exile in
a small house at the end of a narrow lane in a north Delhi slum. But
despite the risks, he continues to preach to other Muslims, exhorting
them in the words of Jesus: "Take up your cross and follow me."
Indeed, evangelical leaders encourage missionaries to continue
proselytizing, even though converts might be tortured or killed.
"Missionaries need maturity and spiritual toughness so that when the
fruits of their witness are required to walk through the fire, the
missionary does not automatically attempt to rescue them," the Southern
Baptist study urges. "Persecution is Biblically and historically
normative for the emerging church; it cannot be avoided or
eliminated.... To avoid persecution is to hamper the growth of the
kingdom of God."
In the end, say evangelicals, the earthly suffering of Christians pales
before the eternal hell to which Muslims are sentenced. "It's hard for
me to say, 'I have a passport out of here if things get out of hand, but
you have to stay here and take it,'" says Raymond Weiss, a former
missionary in Bahrain. "But that's what Jesus says: Sometimes it will be
fathers and mothers against each other for his sake. If Jesus is
cosmically, ultimately true, then whatever cost in this world is
With that shared assumption, Rick Love's students are returning to the
field, to share the New Testament in the places they're least wanted.
The class at CIU has inspired them to renew their efforts to save
Muslims from what they consider a false religion. "Some Christians have
said to us, 'They have their own faith; why do you need to reach them?'"
says Brent McHugh, the evangelist bound for Turkey. "But if you lean
your ladder against the wrong wall and you spend your life climbing up
that ladder, when you get to the top, you'll find there's nothing
there." What do you think? .
Article taken (with Thanks) from MotherJones.com
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