- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

NEW YORK Seated several floors above a busy Manhattan thoroughfare, the two Egyptian men were restless.
"You have to be careful here," one said. "The hot dog stand owners, the taxi cab drivers they are Muslims and they listen to everything."
Having just come out of church, they were at an indoor cafe, conversing about former Muslims they knew who were now Christians. Some married into the faith. Some of the converts no longer believed in the Koran. Others said they had had visions or dreams of Jesus Christ. And others felt the Christian message of God becoming a man was more compelling than their faith. These converts face all kinds of dangers for having left Islam: ostracism from family members and friends, kidnappings and even death threats.
"Most of the people who come here start to question the Koran," one of the Egyptians said. "They can read sources not available in our countries, especially sources in Arabic." The government of Saudi Arabia, for example, blocks thousands of Web sites through its Internet Services Unit in Riyadh, including anything criticizing Islam. A Harvard University study conducted in May showed that out of 2,038 sites banned by the Saudis, 250 were religious.
In the West, seekers who've never heard a serious debate on Islam can click on Exmuslim.com, Islamreview.com and Arabicbible.com. Then there's Paltalk.com, a chat site featuring discussions in various languages on a wide range of topics. Some former Muslims enter these chat rooms with the intent to convert Arabic speakers to Christianity, including "Sam Ash," a New Jersey hairdresser.
"I ask them to prove to me that Islam is the way to God," he said. "Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life. If you can show I have eternal life through Muhammad, I'll become a Muslim this moment."
There is no lack of people who wish to challenge him, which is why he will not divulge his real name.
"I've been hacked" into, he said, "and you should see the viruses people send me."
Most of these converts keep their new affiliation secret, as Islam considers those who leave the faith to be apostates. According to Islamic law as practiced in countries such as Iran, Sudan, Pakistan and in northern regions of Nigeria, the penalty for changing one's religion is execution.
The U.S. State Department has documented numerous instances of religious persecution overseas against Muslim converts to Christianity. What is not so well known are the threats against such converts in the United States.
Some have simply been shunned by their families. Others have been kidnapped by family members and friends, and put on a plane back home. All are reluctant to ask for protection from U.S. law enforcement, especially those converts with Arabic surnames who are leery of getting their names on a U.S. police report. However, there are no known instances of converts from Islam to Christianity who have been killed in the United States for their decision to leave their faith.
Most established Christian denominations are unaware of the situation, as converts attend Bible study groups in their own language or small hidden churches that appear on no denominational radar. No academic research has been done on such converts. The closest figures are those by David Barrett, co-author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, who estimates that within U.S. borders, 50,000 Christians per year turn to Islam while 20,000 Muslims adopt Christianity.
Befriending the latter, the men say, is a dicey proposition.
"It's written in their books," one said. "You cannot be a friend with unbelievers."
'Christ in the Koran'
The Rev. Esper Ajaj, the Syrian-born pastor of Washington Arabic Baptist Church at 4605 Massachusetts Ave. NW in the District, concedes that there are dangers to working with Muslims. Situated within walking distance of American University, he gets a fair amount of seekers at his door.
"They want to ask questions," he said. "Sometimes they come to pray here. Then they have a cup of coffee, and I talk to them. Then I discuss the greatness of Christ in the Koran.
"We've seen more Muslims in [the 1990s] become Christians more than any time in history. If they are open-minded, it is easy. If they are closed-minded, it is not."
He is writing a book tentatively titled, "Difficult Questions a Muslim Asks" but confesses that "I don't know if I'll put my name on it."
"Look at Salman Rushdie," he said, referring to the Muslim author from India whose 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" earned him a death warrant from Persian mullahs.
"One guy called my wife and said, 'Let Esper die.' They could give a person $1,000 and shoot me, and no one would know."
Mr. Ajaj said Christianity is not logical to a Muslim mind that cannot fathom worshipping someone who was ridiculed, then killed. Muslims are divided on whether Jesus even died, and the Koran said Jesus was snatched up to heaven by God before the Crucifixion. Some Muslim commentators think Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene died in His place, and none believe He rose from the dead.
The Rev. Hisham Kamel, pastor of the Arabic Evangelical Church in Temple City, Calif., said the certainty of heaven is what draws Muslims to risk losing family and friends when they accept Christ.
"In Islam, the only way they know they'll get to heaven is if they take part in jihad," he said.
But there is a downside of working with converts, said the Rev. Charles Farag of Trinity Arabic Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. Two years ago, he gave one convert, who showed up at his door with a hard-luck story, one of his favorite cars, a 1994 black Chrysler New Yorker.
The convert totaled the car the next day, then showed up back at the church, saying someone had tried to run him off the road.
"Sometimes people lie so they can apply for religious asylum," Mr. Farag said. "Then, after they receive help from you, you never hear from them again." The Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to provide details on religious asylum requests.
Sometimes even offering sympathy to a convert brings opposition. One Washington area pastor asked not to be named because of a nearby mosque that has been scrutinizing him.
"I have seven Muslims who have converted," he said. "I do not want any trouble."
Ann Buwalda, an immigration lawyer for Just Law International in Fairfax, said she's been approached by Pakistani converts who are refugees. One man, "Masih," was working at a retail store in Northern Virginia, she said, when a Muslim co-worker from Pakistan noticed he was wearing a cross. The man asked Masih why he was wearing it.
"I am Christian," said Masih. The Muslim co-worker became angry, called him derogatory names in their native language, shoved him in a hallway and thereafter tried to get him fired and threatened him after work one night.
"He told the security guards at the retail store, so the employer has separated the two," Ms. Buwalda said.
"I worry about these people. I have given him a cell phone so he can call 911 if these guys stalk him. He has informally told police about it but filed no report" because, she adds, most refugees view American law enforcement in the same light as police from their own countries: people to be avoided at all costs.
She tells of another young female convert who wears a cross and who was stalked by a Muslim Pakistani taxi driver in the retail store where she works. Yet another Pakistani woman who converted to Christianity was threatened with death by Pakistani neighbors. "That kind of stuff, it's frightening when it happens," Ms. Buwalda said.
Victor Gill, a Pakistani immigrant who lives in Philadelphia and who leads a ministry called Christian Voice of Pakistan, said converts are regularly harassed in the United States.
"The threat is real," he said. "They think they are doing something to earn credit with God when they kill Christians. When John Walker Lindh converted to Islam, his family supported him. But not so for the converts here. The Koran said people who leave Islam must be killed."
Killing converts
Actually, that instruction is in the Hadith, a collection of the sayings of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It has been enforced in varying ways. Female converts are usually imprisoned in a room for months or years as a sort of psychological torture until they recant. As for the men, all the traditional schools of Shariah (Islamic) law stipulate that "apostates" those who leave their faith must die. But before they die, they lose all civil liberties. Their children are taken away, their marriage is dissolved, they lose their family inheritance and they cannot be buried in a Muslim graveyard.
One dissident to this traditional interpretation of the Hadith is Taha Jabir Alawani, president of the Graduate School for Islamic Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va. He said the apostate rule was formed in the early seventh century, when leaving one's religion was seen as a traitorous act.
"Mine is a minority opinion," he said. "There's a certain hadith [verse] that said if anyone changes his or her religion, he deserves to be killed. In my research, I found that was linked to some people who were trying to penetrate the Muslim community at the time in Medina. They came from Jewish or pagan communities, and announced they had become Muslims. Then after a few days, they announced they had found this religion to be very bad and they had decided to go back to their religions: Judaism, paganism, whatever.
"The Prophet was trying to stop that kind of conspiracy so he said that if anyone changes from the religion he has adopted, we will kill him. Islamic jurists [ scholars] have not paid attention to [the exceptional nature] of that event. They have generalized that hadith to say if anyone practices apostasy, we should kill him."
Not only has the Hadith been misunderstood, Mr. Alawani said, but the famous Koranic command that there is "no compulsion" in the choice of one's religion has been ignored.
"Everyone has the full right to choose his or her religion," he said. "No one should interfere with that." He is writing a book on the topic but jokes that it should never be released in countries where Islamic law is in full force.
"I should stay away from Pakistan and other places, or I would lose my neck," he said. "Some people living in America even, they don't like those kind of opinions. They will say: 'Don't listen to him. He is trying to Americanize Islam.'"
Some Muslims who convert to Christianity in this country are ordered home immediately, said Samy Tanagho, an Egyptian evangelist associated with Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Calif.
"Last year we had one of the princesses from the Saudi royal family who came with her mother who was seeking medical treatment," he said. "I led her to Christ. It was a huge problem with her family.
"Her faith was genuine. We tried to help her and even contacted Congress to try to protect her. All of a sudden, her family sent a limousine to where she was living and they took her away. She didn't have much support here from Christians, and her family had cut off all financial support."
A California lawyer, who asked to remain unnamed for safety reasons, confirmed this account, adding that a security firm hired by the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles nabbed the woman under the pretext of protecting the royal family.
"Religion and conversion and the royal family; those are the hottest buttons you can push," he said. A call by this newspaper to the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles asking for comment was not returned.
"Another convert I know here who is Lebanese, his family threatened to kill him," Mr. Tanagho said. Hence, he added, when he baptized a Persian woman a few years ago, she asked that her baptism be kept secret.
"Egyptians and Iranians show some of the greatest interest" in Christianity, he said. "They've seen the ugly side of Islam."
Iranians 'feel free'
Unlike the aforementioned Pakistanis, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians and Syrians, Iranian converts reported the fewest repercussions for their faith.
"I've seen some people who've come from Iran to the United States to persecute, if not kill, in order to bring back their relatives to Islam," said Kris Tedford, a Farsi-speaking American who pastors the Iranian Church of Eternal Life in Oakton. "That's not the general rule, though. More people tend to feel freer here."
"Of all the Muslim nations, Iranians are the most receptive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," said Abe Ghaffari of Iranian Christians International in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They've been so well exposed to the Islamic republican government in Iran and they have a lot of disillusionment with life there and the economy."
He guesses that 7,000 evangelical Christian Iranians live in this country, mostly in California.
"There was one case of an Iranian who became a Christian in New York," he said. "His wife, a Muslim, reported this to their families in Iran. The next thing, the father put pressure on him to return to Islam and even had an imam in New York call him and try to pressure and intimidate him.
"He has applied for asylum here because he knows he can't return to Iran and be safe there. Under the Islamic law, he'd be severely punished and if he persisted in his Christian faith, he'd probably die.
"People here are in danger, including from family members in the United States, who shun them, disown them and deprive them of any inheritance. And their family members still back in Iran get used as hostages."
Mina Nevisa, an Iranian convert who lives in the Los Angeles area, has not seen her family since she and her husband fled the country in 1984. She had just started attending an underground church in Tehran with her 28-year-old female cousin when a police raid on the home of the pastor revealed a directory with a listing of names of secret converts to Christianity.
The cousin was arrested on charges of apostasy and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where she was raped, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. The pastor was also killed. Mrs. Nevisa and her husband fled first to Turkey, then to Spain and then Sweden. While in Sweden, she said, she got threatening letters from the Iranian government. She said she also received threatening phone calls.
The couple fled here in 1998, settling in Northern Virginia and setting up an evangelistic ministry geared toward Muslims. In 1999, she published a book: "Don't Keep Me Silent: One Woman's Escape from the Chains of Islam."
The threatening calls started up again. This past January, Mrs. Nevisa said she was alone at home when a caller informed her he knew her husband was out of town.
"Don't you know we know your schedule?" the caller asked. The couple decided to re-establish their ministry in Southern California, but their www.touchofchrist.net Web site leaves only e-mail addresses and post office box numbers with which to find them.
"We got a letter this past Christmas saying 'die' in English," she said. "It's not only the Iranian government that wants to hurt you; it's fanatic individuals."
Muslim Background Believers
At Millersville University, a small college in the gentle hills just southwest of Lancaster, Pa., several hundred Arabic-speaking Christians were having their annual conference.
Several called themselves MBBs: Muslim Background Believers. MBBs are former Muslims who become Christians.
One Jordanian who refused to have his photo taken "Someone published my picture before and there was trouble" went by the assumed name of Maxwell Mohammed.
"I go out of my way to find MBBs across the country," he said. "They have no one to talk to. Last week I got a call from New York, an Iranian couple. His family had cast him off because he had become a Christian."
Mr. Mohammed, 53, who said his family has disowned him as well, said Muslim groups meet all over northern New Jersey but in numbers of 10 to 20 to escape detection.
"These MBBs have unique problems," he said. "They become family-less and jobless. I help these people with money, jobs and visa problems. It's hard for these people to find mates as well. Even other Christians wonder if they'll go back to Islam.
"They need a family. It's like they carry a cross their whole life. My own mother said to me: 'Your father is dead and you, too.' If you convert, you are given three days to come back. If you do not, blood is shed."
He added: "It is not easy to minister to Muslims. They are good people who love and revere God. I was one of them, and if it weren't for a faithful Christian who loved me for three years, I wouldn't have seen the light of salvation through Jesus Christ."
Zechariah Ananni, a Lebanese who converted to Christianity in 1975 after hearing an American missionary preach on the streets of Beirut, was also at the conference. Convinced that his life was in danger, he emigrated first to Detroit, then to Windsor, Canada, where he spends his time trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. His wife is so afraid for their lives, she has fled back to Beirut, leaving him with two young daughters.
A Moroccan at the conference said his married daughters were threatened by their Muslim husbands with divorce if they so much as talked to him about his conversion to Christianity. A Palestinian woman told of how her father tore her New Testament in half when he learned she had converted.
"Noor," a woman from Algeria who was converted through an Arabic-language service at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, said her husband divorced her soon afterward. A court in Algiers awarded him custody of their two sons. She retains custody of a daughter.
"He still bothers her a lot," Noor said. "He tells my daughter I am an unbeliever, and I am going to hell."

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