Monday, September 6, 2004

Christians from across the country traveled to Falls Church this weekend to attend the first Muslim Background Believers Convention, a cross-cultural conference aimed at improving understanding and relations between born-again Christians from Muslim backgrounds and born-again Christians from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds. They speak only under fictitious names assumed for the occasion.

Sponsored in part by the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the convention kept the registration and entrance process under tight security to protect the participants, many of whom say they face death threats or ostracism from their families for leaving the Islamic faith.

The convention focused on teaching Christians from different backgrounds to understand one another’s cultures and circumstances. The number of converts from Islam to Christianity is not readily available, nor is the number of Christians who convert to Islam.

“Unfortunately, there is some suspicion between Muslim-background believers and Christian-background believers,” says the conference organizer, who asked to be called “Joseph Noble.”

“We need to bridge that gap and love one another,” says Mr. Noble, who, like other Christian converts at the conference, was concerned about anonymity because, he says, the Koran dictates that those who leave Islam be considered apostates and can be killed.

“For a Muslim to convert to Christianity is a very risky undertaking,” Mr. Noble says. “If he does not go back to Islam, he could face death.”

Although it is rare for converts to be killed in America because of their faith, many face ostracism from their families or denial of entrance to their former countries, he says.

“I was called by my embassy and told I’d better repent or I could not go back home with my family,” says the conference organizer, a former member of the government in his native country.

To avoid punishment, many converts don’t tell their families that they have left Islam. However, the Christian faith teaches its followers to obey the command, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature,” as set out in the Gospel of St. Mark (16:15). Not being able to share their new faith can be distressing, says “Dania Smith,” who converted from Islam in April.

“I think I’m going to have to tell them eventually because I want them to be Christians, too,” she says.

Until then, however, she fears discovery and ostracism from her family, who live near her Virginia home.

“I know they’re going to disown me if they don’t kill me,” she says.

“Leana Copeland,” another convert, has been a Christian since March. Her Muslim family, who migrated from Jordan, does not know of her conversion. Already ostracized by her brothers because of her marriage to an American, she keeps contact only with her mother and sister.

“My brothers haven’t spoken to me in the last couple years, and that was only because I married an American,” she says. “Can you imagine what they would do if they found out I was a Christian?”

Despite the danger, she says she still takes her two children to church and prays that the rest of her family will become Christians in time.

Mrs. Copeland and Miss Smith say the Muslim Background Believers Convention offers a chance for fellowship with other Christians in similar circumstances.

“It’s good to meet other people, who think like you and understand what you’re going through,” Miss Smith says.

For those who came from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds, the conference offered a chance to understand the Muslim culture and what converts from Islam are experiencing.

“What [this convention] is trying to do is bring people together and say, ‘Let’s focus … [and understand] all these cultural differences that draw us apart,’” says Julie Stall, one of the 17 speakers. “[The] whole idea of how we help each other is a very important topic.”

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