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Seeking a savior

Muslims are increasingly interested in Christianity, but is the Church ready to give an answer?


Kazem, from Iran, attends a class preparing him for baptism at a church in Berlin after his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Clemens Bilan/AFP via Getty Images

Seeking a savior
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On a crisp evening last October, five volunteers from local churches filed into a Middle Eastern cultural center in Orange County, Calif. Sue Fuqua, an energetic and petite woman, welcomed them as she bustled around a makeshift classroom fitted out with tables, chairs, and a screen for movies. While they got settled, Fuqua wrote the agenda for the weekly English class on a whiteboard and prepared a word-matching game. “Today we’re using the Bible’s story of creation for our lesson,” she told her team with a note of excitement in her voice.

Soon the students arrived—three men and five women, most wearing hijabs or Muslim headscarves. The center buzzed with activity—it was Muhammad’s birthday—and kids played pingpong while adults arranged tables of food. The female students and volunteers greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek.

“We’re so happy you’re here,” Fuqua said as they took their seats and browsed the printed lesson: a simple dialogue between God, Adam, Eve, and the snake. “Did you know that you are created in God’s image?” Fuqua asked as she walked around the class.

“What is this word, image?” a woman in her 30s asked in response.

“That means you are similar to God. You are like Him,” Fuqua explained.

“It’s amazing!” one of the students declared.

Off to the side, Salam Ministries President Nader Hanna cued up a children’s video about ­creation that matched the lesson. He has been involved in ministry to Muslims for 20 years and said crusade-style evangelism doesn’t work. But investing in relationships does.

Salam Ministries doesn’t ask its Muslim students to join a Bible study, but some eventually do. “Just do life with them and show them the love of God without words, because the communication of the gospel starts with that very first smile, and then it opens the door to communicating the message of the gospel,” Hanna said. “And Muslims are receiving the gospel in so many ways.”

Conversions from Islam to Christianity, once rare, are multiplying exponentially around the globe. Some who study these trends claim more Muslims have professed faith in Christ during the past four decades than in the past two millennia.

“Historically, nearly all conversions involved Christians becoming Muslim, not the reverse,” wrote Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islam and president of Middle East Forum. “Islam has for 1,400 years been the ‘Hotel California’ of religions (‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’), as it prohibits adherents from either declaring themselves atheists or members of another faith, which from the Islamic point of view amount to the same thing. Tens of millions of Christians have been absorbed into the spiritual empire of Islam.”

Now, that’s changing.

A Muslim convert is baptized in the Netherlands.

A Muslim convert is baptized in the Netherlands. Kees van de Veen/Hollandse Hoogt/Redux

David Garrison’s book A Wind in the House of Islam describes nine locations in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia where Muslims are turning to Christ in unprecedented numbers. But similar movements are also happening in the United States, according to six people who lead Muslim outreach ministries.

Several factors have contributed to this trend, including Muslim immigration in the wake of political unrest and the explosion of Christian media outreach. Dreams about Jesus are another factor sending Muslims on a journey to learn more about the God of the Bible. (More on that in a moment.)

“We used to hear maybe of a person coming to faith maybe once a year,” said Fouad Masri, CEO of Crescent Project. “But now every week we see ­people downloading Bibles.” Masri founded his ministry in 1993 to equip the Church to reach the growing number of Muslims in the United States. Crescent Project now has seven Muslim-background believers on staff and a digital outreach with 500 volunteers regularly talking to Muslims online.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted many Muslims to begin asking questions about their faith. One of Masri’s friends, a Persian man from New York City, wanted to find out what Christians would do to Muslims in retaliation. So, he bought a Bible and began to read. He was surprised by Jesus’ instructions to love your enemies. That radical love intrigued him, so he joined a Bible study and eventually became a Christian.

Abdu Murray, president of the apologetics ministry Embrace the Truth, said he was surprised to meet another Christian from a Muslim background after his conversion in 2000. Now he’s aware of hundreds of conversions and personally knows 30 or 40 Christians who were once Muslims. Some have public ministries, but most are “just quietly going about their lives and witnessing for Christ in their communities.”

Horizons International President Georges Houssney has also witnessed an increased number of conversions among Muslims. His organization works with international students in 10 U.S. cities and has ministry centers around the world, ­including nine in Beirut.

Houssney points to a wider trend of Muslims leaving Islam. The 1979 Iranian revolution and increase in Islamist terrorist attacks have created broad disillusionment with the religion, he said.

Houssney says most Muslims turn to atheism. But others don’t want to be irreligious and find Christianity the closest faith to Islam: “There already is so much in the Quran that speaks about the same thing the Bible talks about. Not necessarily accurately, but still there’s Adam and Eve’s story. There’s Noah, Abraham, Moses,” Houssney said. “Jesus is mentioned in the Quran more than 90 times.”

But U.S. Christians have failed in some respects to engage their Muslim neighbors with both enduring love and Biblical wisdom. Muslims are “filling the streets in America, and we can see it as Christians in two ways: a Muslim invasion of America or God sending them to us,” Houssney said.

We’ve had kings, parliament members, ministers from all over the world who studied in America, and you can make a huge impact on their lives.

FARAH SAADA MARVIL was a high school student in the early 1990s when her dad began exhibiting strange behavior: He would sit at the dining room table reading a large book with gold borders, slam it shut, and retreat to his bedroom while talking to himself out loud. Then he’d return to the book and vigorously mark up passages with a highlighter.

This unusual behavior continued until one day in 1993.

“He comes into my room on a Sunday morning, turns on the light, and says, ‘Get up. We’re going to church.’ And I’m like, ‘What?!’ I was 15 years old, and Sunday was my morning to sleep,” Marvil said.

Marvil’s mom was nominally Catholic, but her dad, Taysir Abu Saada, was a Palestinian-born Muslim who once worked as a sniper for the Palestinian Liberation Organization and as personal driver for its then-leader, Yassar Arafat. Saada left that life behind when he immigrated to Kansas City in the 1970s, but he wanted his kids to culturally identify as Muslim. Saada helped raise money to build one of the city’s first mosques, although he rarely attended.

Several months after the family started going to church, Saada became a Christian. Marvil’s brother, a senior in high school, had already placed his faith in Christ but had been hiding it for a month. Then her mother embraced the faith. Marvil was the last to convert, after a year of heated discussions with the church youth pastors.

It’s difficult to determine the number of Muslims who’ve converted to Christianity in the United States, but among those who have, Fouad Masri has observed the following two trends: an encounter with a practicing Christian and a vision or dream about Jesus, whom Muslims recognize as the prophet Isa.

“This is freaking out all the imams, because even imams, some of them had a dream of Jesus,” Masri said. “And they’re like, ‘Why did I not see Muhammad? Why did I see Jesus?’”

Houssney often opens a conversation with Muslims by asking about recent dreams. He said Jesus always has a shining face and is dressed in white in the dreams described to him.

“Muslims value dreams because of their culture and their religion.” Hanna said. “And I think God just talks to people the way they expect or they would receive.”

Mike Westerfield was profoundly influenced by a dream, but the enduring love of Christians in his life was the primary catalyst for his conversion.

Mike Westerfield was profoundly influenced by a dream, but the enduring love of Christians in his life was the primary catalyst for his conversion. Photo by Andrew Wardlow/Genesis

Mike Westerfield grew up in a Christian home and encountered Islam while working as a correctional officer at a prison. Muslim inmates gave him Islamic literature challenging Christianity, and he found himself drowning in the doubts he failed to adequately address during Bible college. After three years of study, he became a Muslim in early 2001.

He fully immersed himself in Islam—working as a Muslim chaplain, praying five times a day, ­raising his kids in the faith, and studying to be an imam. But for seven of his 12 years as a Muslim, he felt unsettled.

Early one morning in 2012, Westerfield had a vivid dream of Jesus that included a flood of crimson blood drowning him as he ran. Then he was suddenly filled with peace. When he woke up, he was convinced the dream came from an evil spirit, until a colleague approached him the next day at work. “He said, ‘Jesus told me to tell you that He loves you.’ And it’s just like the dream came back again. I just broke down crying at work,” Westerfield said.

That dream profoundly influenced his journey to Christ a year later, he said, but the enduring love of Christians in his life was a primary catalyst for his conversion. He was also moved by the radical difference between the lives of Muhammad and Jesus. Muhammad was a state-builder who ordered dozens of executions; Jesus made a distinction between Church and state and commanded His followers to love their enemies.

Marvil’s conversion process did not involve a dream, although her dad’s did. But as with Westerfield, the Christian community leaning into their journey had the greatest influence.

When Marvil got into the car that Sunday morning in 1993, she assumed her dad would drive to the local Catholic church her mom occasionally attended. Instead, the family traveled 40 minutes away to the basement of a bank where lawn chairs filled the room and people milled about in jeans and T-shirts. One of the pastors was warming up on the drums while several musicians tuned their electric guitars.

“We’re talking a cross between Petra and Bon Jovi. Hair out to here,” Marvil said, holding her hands out to the side of her head. “And ripped jeans, really loud, and really genuinely loved Jesus.” She thought her dad had brought them to a cult.

What she encountered in that congregation changed the course of her life. At first she went further into Islam. Then she declared herself agnostic. The youth pastor’s wife suggested she spend six months reading the book of John, and her heart began to open up to the gospel. “It was the youth pastors who really just loved me where I was at and just kept suffering with me—like long-suffering. And they didn’t give up,” Marvil said.

Houssney hosts yearly conferences for Muslim converts—last year 40 attended—and has researched conversion trends. Twenty years ago, he asked 120 former Muslims a series of questions about factors that influenced their journey to Christianity.

Five percent of the respondents just walked into a church; 25 percent received a piece of Christian literature; 50 percent said Christian media played a role; and 60 percent said they had a dream. But 85 percent of the respondents said the love of a Christian played an important role.

Steve Mashni evangelizes in Garden Grove, Calif. His sign says, “Come and talk to me about the Messiah.”

Steve Mashni evangelizes in Garden Grove, Calif. His sign says, “Come and talk to me about the Messiah.” Photo by Jill Nelson

IRANIANS MAKE UP THE LARGEST percentage of Muslim-background believers globally and nationally, according to ministry leaders. Today, in Iran and among the Persian diaspora, the estimated number of converts from Islam to Christianity ranges from several hundred thousand to more than a million. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there were only a few hundred. “You go into major cities [in the U.S.] and you’ll find Iranian churches, Persian-speaking churches,” Houssney said.

Mehr Reformed Ministries President Hamid Hatami said he knows more than 400 Iranian Christians in both the United States and Iran. The vast majority, himself included, converted from Islam during the past three decades.

Marvil is now the COO of Hope for Ishmael, a ministry to Muslims her father founded 23 years ago. In Kansas City, she has witnessed a movement of conversions among highly educated Algerian Berbers, immigrants from North Africa. Four years ago, they were working with five Muslim-background Christian families who wanted to start a church. Now that church has grown to 30 extended families that number between 200 and 300 people. Some are “seekers,” but most are ­baptized Christians.

Marvil said these converts are sharing their faith with other Algerians in the area as well as local Iraqi and Afghan Muslims.

Many of the ministry leaders I talked to said the majority of Muslim conversions to Christ in the United States are taking place on university campuses. “They want to go to an American home, eat American food, make American friends, and learn English,” Houssney said.

Muslims who come to America are generally more open-minded, and that’s especially true of international students. Religious families usually don’t let their children come to the West, fearing its negative influence.

One Texas campus minister told me the Muslim conversions to Christ at his university involved “secret” conversions and “secret” baptisms. WORLD agreed not to use his name or the name of his university to keep these students safe.

“Over the past several years, we’ve had 10 to 12 (that I know of, but maybe more) from Iran commit their lives to Christ,” he wrote in an email. They have kept their Christian faith a secret “for fear word of their conversion will bring harm to their families back in Iran.”

Publicly leaving Islam has always carried risk. A Hadith—one of the recorded sayings of Muhammad—includes this declaration: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.” That happens far less in the West than it does abroad, but “apostates” face difficulties no matter where they live.

Abdu Murray said he knew Christianity was true for nearly two years before he was willing to “embrace the truth,” a phrase that became the name of his ministry.

As a college student at the University of Michigan, he began to take his Muslim faith more seriously while also studying other religions: He wanted to become an apologist for Islam and enjoyed long discussions with two Baptists who would occasionally knock on his door. But he ­gradually began to doubt Islam.

After passing the bar exam six years later, he decided to face his doubts before starting his law firm job. One day in June 2000, he sat at his parents’ desk with all the evidence for Islam on his left and the evidence for Christianity on his right—books, articles, and email exchanges with theologians and professors. Behind him, a computer played a debate between a Muslim and a Christian about whether or not Jesus rose from the dead.

“I recognized that I had intellectually assented to the credibility of the gospel message, from history to theology to you name it, including science and other things. But I couldn’t embrace it as true,” Murray said. “There was too much price to pay.”

The journey from Islam to Christianity is ­typically a long, arduous process that takes years. Ministry leaders told me many Muslims are questioning their faith and can’t talk to their Muslim friends or leaders because they come from an “honor and shame” culture where doubt is frowned upon.

But the Church is missing this opportunity.

Both Houssney and Hanna said Christians have failed to mix with immigrants and create meaningful relationships. The United States resettled more than 310,000 Muslim refugees between 2002 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. California accepted the most, followed by New York and Texas, but Muslim refugees live in every state.

Houssney said there is a tremendous need for churches to step in and help disciple new converts: “Many Muslims who profess faith in Jesus Christ fall away, frequently either returning to Islam or becoming atheists.” He said churches have publicly baptized some Muslims before ensuring they understood basic Christian beliefs.

Other churches are guilty of “bait and switch” patterns: inviting Muslims to a picnic, witnessing, then leaving. “They’ve already seen this, most likely with missionaries in their homeland, so they think, ‘Great, I can get free stuff if I just listen,’” Marvil said.

Murray said Christians often don’t speak about their faith with confidence, fearing they will offend Muslims, and that comes across as a lack of conviction. But he also encourages the Church to “emphasize reasons to embrace Christianity” instead of criticizing Islam.

Some ministry leaders said there’s a place for asking difficult questions. Steve Mashni, a Muslim convert to Christianity, challenges Muslim claims through his YouTube channel and street evangelism in Garden Grove, Calif.—tactics that have angered some Muslims. But many churches are simply unaware of their local Muslim communities, and ministry leaders say that needs to change.

Houssney wants every Muslim international student to regularly visit the homes of Christian families in America. “We’ve had kings, parliament members, ministers from all over the world who studied in America, and you can make a huge impact on their lives,” Houssney said. “Even if they don’t become Christians, they become more open to Christianity and more willing to allow Christianity in their country.”

Crescent Project is implementing a similar program: pairing the nearly 3,000 imams in the United States with a Christian leader or pastor to meet with on a regular basis. “We discovered that many imams don’t have a Christian friend,” Masri said. So far, they have 200 pastors from at least seven states committed to meet with an imam.

IN JANUARY, a new refugee family joined the Salam Ministries ESL class at the Middle Eastern cultural center in Orange County—recent arrivals from Afghanistan. The oldest child in the family, an eloquent 17-year-old, wants to be either a writer or a doctor one day. She’s an eager student, and she poses a question to Nader Hanna.

“Mr. Nader, I already know about the prophets. I was so excited to come here, and I don’t know many things about this country,” she explained. “Who is this ‘King Luther’ person we celebrated today in school? Can you teach us about American holidays?”

Hanna smiled and agreed to create some English lessons around this topic. This teenage girl is lonely, he told me, and needs friends. So do many of the people he encounters in his ministry work, but too few American Christians are stepping up to meet that need.

“I have no doubt that many Muslims are considering Christianity or seeking to know the truth,” Hanna said. “Many more than we know.”


Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.

@WorldNels

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