Muslim Converts to Christianity: A Silent [R]evolution

By Monday, May 22, 2017

The unanticipated result of the United States presidential election has done much to expose the mainstream media – especially how much it misses. It forces the question, what is truly “newsworthy?” What events today will actually impact future generations? If reporters held this long-term viewpoint, how many stories being covered today would be cast aside as trivial?

What game-changing discoveries or breakthroughs in technology and medicine will change the course of our future? What about developments in the demographic, cultural and political landscape? It is possible that many of them will be deemed newsworthy after our lives have already been changed.

One such development is happening right under our noses. There are scattered reports of a profound change happening in the religious landscape of the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world: Millions of Muslims are reportedly converting to Christianity.

Outspoken converts to Christianity such as Mosab Hassan Yousef, Nabeel Qureshi and Brother Rachid (of Al Hayat TV) have caught the public eye in recent years. The testimonies of lesser-known converts have been posted to YouTube and other social media platforms. Considering the fact that outspoken witnesses are very much an exception, could it be that these converts are merely the tip of the iceberg?

A climate of apostate and blasphemy laws, as well as family and cultural pressure, make it difficult to accurately estimate the number of converts from Islam. Christians with a Muslim background are given strong incentives to remain “in the closet,” and Muslims with doubts are incentivized to keep it to themselves. Even in Malaysia, a more moderate Muslim nation, the supreme court refused to legally recognize Lina Joy’s conversion from Islam to Christianity in 2007.

A few years ago, rumors surfaced of underground churches throughout Iran. Many attributed their conversions to meeting Jesus Christ in dreams or visions. According to more recent reports, refugees from Europe – particularly Germany and Switzerland – have converted from Islam to Christianity. In 2015, German Pastor Gottfried Martens reported that in two years, the congregation of his Evangelical Lutheran church swelled from 150 to 600, due in large part to Muslim converts – although he acknowledged that getting baptized could be a tactic by some to increase the likelihood of being granted political asylum.

Several efforts have been made to procure an estimate of how many Muslims around the world have converted to Christianity. A report by Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone, titled “Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census,” was published in 2015 in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. The duo attempted to calculate the number of conversions from Islam to Christianity that were made between 1960 and 2010. Several pages of the report were dedicated to explaining the precautions taken to avoid either over-reporting or under-reporting the figures, although Miller and Johnstone conceded that obvious complexities exist to obtaining accurate figures.

That report estimated 10 million Muslim converts to Christianity in the world as of seven years ago, whereas in 1960 there were fewer than 200,000. The annual increase of converts to Christianity has been several hundred thousand during the past few years. The majority of the converts come from Indonesia, a country in which the campaign “Save Maryam” is scrambling to reverse this trend and bring converts back to Islam. A substantial number of new Christians also hail from Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

But the Middle East and North Africa have also seen a spike in the number of conversions to Christianity. David Garrison, a career missionary and the author of A Wind in the House of Islam, said he believes the worldwide number of new believers in the region is between 2 and 7 million.

Miller and Johnstone estimated that Algeria alone contains 380,000 Christians with a Muslim background, making up roughly 1 percent of the population. Open Doors USA assessed that the number of Christians in Iran is now approximately 450,000. Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey are home to thousands of new converts, whereas they had hardly any at all 20 years ago. Admitting that it is especially difficult to get a reliable estimate for Saudi Arabia (with its draconian penal code), Miller and Johnstone still estimated 60,000 converts in that nation.

It is fairly easy for a government to suppress a few thousand believers. That becomes more difficult when the number grows into a few hundred thousand. A few million converts in any given country could potentially give Muslim background believers relative safety in numbers.

This trend is encouraging, but should not be surprising. The gospel has an edge over other narratives: the advantage of truth. Such an advantage also offers hope that the rate of conversion will not move linearly, but exponentially.

In his book The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc complained that Christian missionary efforts in the Muslim world up to that point (1938) had not been very fruitful. What is the difference today?

Social and political turmoil throughout the Muslim world has been cited as one of the chief factors leading to eventual conversions. Violence and persecution committed in the name of Islam has soured the faith for many Muslims. And the number of conversions in the Middle East began swelling in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

In Algeria, the number of conversions rapidly increased as its bloody civil war raged throughout the 1990s. Many Muslims have been converted since 2010, amidst the Syrian Civil War and the ascension of the Islamic State and Boko Haram. Are characters such as Ayatollah Khamenei, the Saudi royals, Osama bin Laden and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi among the most effective evangelists of our era? In its quest to annihilate Christianity from the lands in which the earliest Christians movements took place, has the Islamic State unwittingly breathed new life into it?

Missionary efforts to share the gospel in an indigenous context have increased, and local witnesses are far more common than they once were. Indigenous efforts also make it much harder to dismiss Christianity as a “Western” religion.

Globalization has also exposed many Middle Easterners to different cultures and to new ideas. Radio, TV and the Internet have likewise opened channels to scrutinize religion as never before, as well as expand the cultural universe of the people in the region.

There currently exist movements that attempt to recontextualize Islam as a religion of moderation and peace – to promote an “Islam Light.” The Gülen Movement, for example, has recently come into prominence since being assigned blame by the Turkish government for a failed military coup this past July.

Qureshi warned in a recent interview with Christianity Today that he is skeptical of the long-term success of any such drives; that Muslims around the world are essentially given only three choices: nominalism, apostasy or radicalization. Qureshi simply articulated an understanding that many former Muslims share: that Islam possesses unique handicaps (the primacy of the Quran and a history of warfare and conquest since the faith’s birth) to being re-contextualized in a manner that would curb interpretations leading to widespread violence.

Many Muslims are indeed turning to nominalism. And there is evidence that apostasy in Islam is increasingly taking another form: that of atheism. Turmoil has soured all religion for many Muslims around the world.

Will moderate interpretations prevail? Are we now witnessing the early stages of a collapse? Such questions carry long-term significance.

It is human nature to look at many particulars (such as the actions of a government) superficially. Many would like to see greater political liberty be implemented in the region, yet fail to consider that it must be surrounded by certain ideas (such as transparency or economic liberties) to properly contextualize liberty. Going deeper, a certain philosophy, as well as a spiritual foundation, are also needed for contextualization. The mere presence of other faiths in the Middle East is necessary for functional liberty to become a reality.

During the Arab Spring, the world watched in hope that the revolutions would finally bring democracy and stability to the Middle East (or at least some parts of it). It did not, because it could not. But the eyes of world may be overlooking another revolution – a silent revolution that could actually set the groundwork for peace and stability in the Middle East.

That a silent revolution – or evolution – could be happening right in front of us is a miracle; one that we could miss just as easily as did the men on the road to Emmaus. Such a miracle is intimately fastened to a much greater revolution: one that commenced two millennia ago, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The great effort to transform our world from the inside out – an effort in which all of us are called to take part – began. This historical event is the key to understanding life. And the call to join the chorus of love is an invitation open to all people. It can be valid only when a person freely chooses to join this chorus. That is true sacred liberty.

Zubair Simonson

Zubair Simonson is a freelance writer living in New York, although he grew up in North Carolina. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Political Science. Recently confirmed in the Catholic Church, he is a candidate with the Secular Franciscan Order.

  • Duane Alexander Miller

    Zubair, thank you for noting the global census that Patrick and I published in the IJRR. Don’t hesitate to contact me with any further questions.