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The Conversion of Muslim Refugees

September 6, 2015

This is something of a companion piece to my post this morning about Pope Francis and welcoming refugees.  An article appeared a couple days ago on Crux about Muslim refugees converting to Christianity.   I post this since I first saw it on a Facebook feed from one of my friends.  The people commenting on the article seemed initially horrified by it.  (I went back to check the discussion and check on what was said, but could not find it:  curse you, the ephemeral nature of social media!)

I think the situation is complicated and worth discussing.  However, I lack the time and energy to write a coherent post about it as I am working on something else.  So let me give a few quotes and ask:  what are your thoughts?  Good?  Bad? Or more complicated than a simply binary? (Julia, that goes out to you, destroyer of all false or facile dichotomies!)

I will just throw out a teaser, a thought that came to me that I would like to explore. It seems to me that ultimately, conversion is a deeply personal act, an “I-Thou” exchange between the convert and God.  But we cannot ignore that this occurs in a social context:  to convert is to join a community and become one with it.  So is a conversion that seeks membership in a community a bad thing, or simply a first step in a longer process?

Some quotes:

Zonoobi, a carpenter from the Iranian city of Shiraz, arrived in Germany with his wife and two children five months ago. He is one of hundreds of mostly Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity at the evangelical Trinity Church in a leafy Berlin neighborhood.  [Here “evangelical”  refers to the “Evangelische Kirche,” the Lutheran Church of Germany, and not to an “evangelical church” as commonly understood here in the US. This is confirmed by a photo in another version of this article.]…

Like Zonoobi, most [converts] say true belief prompted their embrace of Christianity. But there’s no overlooking the fact that the decision will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home….

Other Christian communities across Germany, among them Lutheran churches in Hannover and the Rhineland, have also reported growing numbers of Iranians converting to Christendom. There are no exact numbers on how many Muslims have converted in Germany in recent years — and they are a tiny minority compared to the country’s overall 4 million Muslims. But at least for Berlin, [Trinity pastor] Martens describes the number of conversions as nothing short of a “miracle.”

 

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7 Comments
  1. Mark VA permalink
    September 7, 2015 6:01 am

    In my opinion: good!

    Considering the consequences for apostasy in Islam, held by much of its jurisprudence
    ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostasy_in_Islam ), I don’t think such a decision would be taken lightly. I think the below discussion on apostasy in Islam may be illuminating (kudos to BBC):

    While it is certainly possible that some of these decisions may be motivated by other than religious questions, this seems to me to be much less likely.

    Regarding the process of conversion vs. converts joining a new religious community, I see the two as closely intertwined. Actually, I have a difficult time imagining one in the absence of the other.

  2. Edward Burton permalink
    September 7, 2015 6:14 pm

    One would be wise to let each such person be in charge of the extent to which his/her conversion becomes known, and to whom. We do not need to identify targets for ISIS in Europe or in America.

  3. Julia Smucker permalink*
    September 8, 2015 6:17 pm

    Thanks for the nod, David. My first reaction, before I read the article or the quotes, was that it could be an unsought good if people are drawn to membership in the Christian community (and I agree with Mark VA that this is inseparable from personal conversion) through their experience of hospitality and service. Not that conversion should ever be a condition or hidden agenda of hospitality, but there can and should be something naturally attractive about Christians living their faith.

    But the question of how asylum factors in does seem to complicate things. It seems uncharitable and inhospitable to assume that motivation of people seeking church membership, and I wondered for a minute if that might be at its origin a secular attempt to understand what’s happening, but it sounds like some of those suspicions are coming from within the refugee community.

    On the other hand, I would also want to caution pastors and catechists that letting people know what they are getting into (i.e. what it means to be Christian) and preparing them honestly is more important than mere growth in numbers. But given the context these people are coming from, I imagine they would understand costly discipleship all too well. In any case, it seems audacious of me to try to sort out all those questions of motive from a distance.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink*
      September 13, 2015 9:30 am

      One additional thought I had is that it might well be a mistake to assume that someone coming from the Middle East and identifies as “Muslim” is automatically a pious and observant Muslim. They could be culturally and socially Muslim, in the way many Irish or Italian Catholics (in Europe or the US) are “Catholic” but whose identification is more social and cultural than an expression of a deep faith.

      This is important, I think, because as I reflect back on the few negative comments about the original article that I read, there was a sense that by baptizing these people, the church was “stealing” people from their “own faith.” This perhaps over-simplifies things, but I think it gets at something important.

      I think of this because of discussions I had years ago with some folks about Catholics who convert to other Christian denominations. I always maintained that it was better to be a good Lutheran, or Baptist or Evangelical, than a bad Catholic. It seems to me that this logic should apply in both directions.

  4. September 9, 2015 9:35 am

    How often have we read in the past of populations ‘flipping’ en masse from one Faith or Creed to another based upon political and social realities? I’ve often wondered about the tremendous upheaval that usually accompanies such a move (war, social calamity, political conquest, etc.). And I’ve also wondered about the depth and reality of conversion as well as the propagandizing of such a move.

    God knows the heart and I’m certain that this represent an opportunity for conversion (new as well as ongoing) and growth in faith for all of us together. Indeed, how often will we Christians recognize the poor and suffering Jesus among the refugees, converted or not, as he accompanies them on such a perilous journey.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink*
      September 13, 2015 9:32 am

      Tausign, thank you! There is the basis for a wonderful sermon here: how every infant baptism, every adult conversion, should be a moment for us to deepen our own ongoing conversion.

  5. September 16, 2015 8:13 am

    Since this article is about a phenomenon in Germany, I’d like to add, being German, that apostasy in Islam might lead to problems in Germany as well. Some Muslims see themselves in a position of “correcting” their fellows, so an apostate might eventually get punished by his former Muslim “brothers”.
    A Franciscan priest once told me about a case of an Iranian convert whose carpetstore was burned down, and there is the famous case of a Pakistani woman and author, Sabatina James, who flew from her family after being forced into marriage and later embraced Catholicism. She is protected by the police and does not have an official address, changing her home every few days or weeks. In Germany!

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