Sunday, November 14, 2010

Part XXII: Iranian Christianity

Part XXII: Iranian Christianity
by Abu Daoud
November 2010

That Muslims are converting to Christianity in numbers unprecedented throughout history comes as a (welcome) surprise to most Christians in the West. Every now and then I find someone who has heard about one of these movements, like the tens of thousands of Berbers in Algeria who in the last two decades have converted, or the hundreds each year who are baptized into the Catholic Church in countries like France and Italy. Or perhaps they have heard of the experimental laboratory that is Bangladesh, where there are groups of people who call themselves Christ-followers but don’t use the term Christian or Muslim to refer to themselves.

But one of the most numerically significant movements of Muslims to Christianity is among Iranians. I am not talking about people with Iranian citizenship who come from ethnic groups which are traditionally Christian (Armenians and Assyrians), but about the large ethnic group whose ancestors were Zoroastrians and slowly but surely, century by century converted to Islam. Today there are very few Zoroastrians left in Iran.

While I have spent most of the last five years in the Arab world, I have of course occasionally spent time in the US and the UK for multiple reasons—conferences, education, vacation, weddings, and so on. And during that time I have had the pleasure of meeting with many Iranian Christians. Some of them are brand new believers, just-baptized, some of them converted decades ago and are seasoned leaders in their churches. Some left Iran under favorable circumstances, while many left Iran as political, economic, or religious refugees. Some of them converted while still in Iran, some of them after their departure. I want to outline here a couple of things I have noticed about Iranian Christianity in the Diaspora.

First, this is a new church. If you have an Egyptian or Palestinian who comes to Christ, they are able to look back to their ancestry and say, ‘I had Christian ancestors, I’m returning to something ancient.’ And that can be important from a psychological and emotional point of view. Knowing that can bring them strength and encouragement. But Iranians never were Christians. So the churches they are forming and the sort of Christianity they are constructing is genuinely something brand new, and not simply a newer version of something ancient.

Second, Iranian Christianity preserves Iranian culture and identity. Iranians who become Christians tend to be critical of Islam to some extent. Many of them identify it with Arab culture and thus as something imported from afar, and ultimately something that degraded Persian culture. Most of their children have Persian names, and not Arabic ones. On the other hand, they continue to celebrate the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) with its rich traditions, because it is pre-Islamic.

Third, it is non-denominational. While these Christians by and large are evangelical and perhaps charismatic, there is no one denomination or Christian tradition that dominates the movement. On the plus side this means that Christians from many different churches and denominations are able to bring their ideas and spiritualities to the table. The down side is that personal differences among leaders can sometimes lead to divisions that probably did not need to happen. Over the years I have been in touch with Iranian Christians who are Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, as well as some who don’t belong to any one denomination. In spite of all this diversity, the good news is that the churches and leaders tend to stay in touch and consult together by means of meetings, conferences, the web, and so on.

Fourth, Iranian Christianity is facing huge challenges. The most obvious one is persecution within Iran, but there are others too. How does one train leaders when it is impossible to open a seminary (in Iran)? How can churches and leaders remain accountable to each other when they belong to so many different denominations? Will the prosperity gospel lead to a bitter split among their churches? And what to do with the second generation, who are born in the West and perhaps feel more at home in a normal English- or German-speaking church?

Nonetheless, the story of Iranian Christianity is exciting and inspiring. We can now very realistically speak of hundreds of thousands of Iranian Christians around the world, and a substantial population in Iran itself. But as the church grows, opposition increases too. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Remember the Iranian Church in your prayers. It is the new-comer to global Christianity, but one with a lot of energy, but a lot of difficulties to face as well.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Open Letter to the Pope on Muslim Evangelism

Available here in PDF format. Published in the October 2010 issue of St Francis Magazine.

Here is an excerpt:

The third reform I recommend is this: each bishop must discern
how new disciples coming from Islam should be baptized.
Here there is no panacea. Each diocese is different and the question
of baptism must be handled in a wise but apostolic manner. In
the Middle East (where I have lived for several years) the general
practice among Catholics is to refer Muslims who inquire about
baptism to evangelicals, or simply tell them (as above) that they
must find their salvation in Islam through greater self effort. Of
course Muslims requesting baptism are adults, and thus are (ideally)
baptized by the local bishop. Catholic bishops in the Muslim
world have shown a very strong tendency towards favoring the
security of their material goods (schools, clinics, churches) over
the sporadic and risky requests posed to them by the Muslim
seeking to know Christ, or for that matter the ex-Muslim who
does know Christ and is seeking the sacrament of initiation into
the church which the bishop oversees. The complications are,
well, complicated. But we are called to be shrewd and wise by our
Master. If the bishop needs to be able to deny that he has baptized
a new Christian, then let him specify an old, retired priest or
monk to do this. Or a very old and devout lay person perhaps. Or
a visiting cleric whose expulsion from the country will not be
harmful. Or something. But let there be a policy of some sort. In
the West, the policy most worthy of emulation is your own: unapologetic,
public, and bold.

Thanks to Don for linking to this at his blog.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A strange episode with corruption and the Gospel

The other day I was visiting a small city which doesn't get many foreigners at all. I went into the barber's to get a shave (you can do that here, it's cheap too). We got into a conversation about history and I said that I have studied religion a good deal. The barber was impressed as I listed off the Islamic caliphates and where they were based. The place had a lot of people in it, just young guys hanging out with nothing to do.

Anyway, after a while he laid out carefully and intelligently the argument for Islam: the Gospel and Torah are corrupted, they were once integral but are not now. So God sent a final revelation, the Qur'an, through the last Prophet, to be a sure foundation and revelation to humanity. What is your response to this, he wanted to know.

I pointed out a few basic things: if God could not preserve the first three books, then why would he be able to preserve the fourth? (This is a question that has no answer, he said.) I also mentioned that the the Qur'an does not say the these books are corrupted. I said that 'tahriif' is simply an Islamic tradition, like the face veil, and you can take it or leave it as you like. I finally pointed out that in the Qur'an God tells Muhammad, "If you are in doubt about anything, ask the people who have read the book before you." Now how can God tell Muhammad to ask these people for advice if their Scriptures are corrupted? All pretty standard stuff.

Then something surprising happened. The other barber who had been listening jumped in, Yes, this is true, the Qur'an does not say the injiil is corrupted at all.

This surprised me a lot. I have never heard a Muslim who was not a follower of Jesus or an academic writing in some journal defend the integrity of the Gospel/injiil. Strange.

Anyway, I lent my NT to the first barber and told him next I'm back in his city I would go to pick it up, and see if he had found any corruption in it. Not sure when I'll be back down there, but God willing he will read it and we'll have a good conversation next I see him.

Abu Daoud

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Part XXI: Islam, Conversion, and Identity

Part XXI: Islam, Conversion, and Identity
by Abu Daoud

In part X of this series I talked about reasons why Muslims are attracted to the Christian faith. This topic of conversion is very interesting, and I want to discuss it a little more.

The nature of the Gospel, and of Christian mission in general, is not to replace any given culture with ‘a Christian culture’. For a while this was indeed the strategy, to become Christian meant getting a Western name and wearing European clothing and so on. Those days are long gone though. Today we understand that every culture will have elements that need to be confronted by the Gospel, but that does not mean that the Gospel itself becomes the new culture. It is like the salt, which makes the food good, but which you don’t eat on its own. Cultures are evangelized, not just individual persons.

And here is where Islam comes into the equation: shall we understand Islam as a cluster of cultures which need to be evangelized, but not replaced? Or shall we understand Islam as rival religion, which must be replaced by the Christian religion? There are multiple heated arguments on this topic going on all over the place today among missionaries and converts as well. Let me unpack the results of each theory:

If we say that, yes, Islam is indeed a culture, then, just like we have Jewish followers of Jesus (who don’t call themselves Christians), we can also have Muslim followers of Jesus. They worship God through Jesus Christ, read the Bible and believe in it, and will tend to have a positive view of the Qur’an and Muhammad. They do not call their gatherings ‘churches’ usually, and they tend to use the Islamic vocabulary and names (like ‘issa for Jesus), rather than Christian terms (yasuu’ for Jesus). This group will focus on using concepts that overlap with the Qur’an like ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘straight path.’

But what if, when we look at Islam, we see a rival religion? Then there is no way to reconcile Muhammad and Jesus, the Bible and the Qur’an, nor should we try to do so. This approach would generally focus on the new identity a person has in Christ, with an emphasis on being part of the Church—a different community than the Islamic umma. It would be normal for a person to take a new (non-Islamic) name, though not required. Their view of Muhammad and the Qur’an will tend to focus on short-comings and deficiencies.

Clearly, I am painting with broad strokes here. But that should not obscure the very real issue at hand here—it is not just a matter of semantics. If Islam is more of a culture to be evangelized, but we preach as if Islam were a rival religion, we may fail to communicate the Gospel in an understandable manner relating to that culture’s context. On the other hand, if we emphasize how the Gospel and Islam as a culture go together, and thus create a community of Muslim followers of Jesus, we risk compromising central beliefs (the Trinity, the incarnation) and practices (baptism) that have always defined Christian orthodoxy. These are, broadly speaking, the two paths before the churches today as they seek to relate the message of new life in Messiah to the Muslims of the world.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Catholic Lay Missions and Muslim Evangelism

Catholic Lay Missions and Muslim Evangelism
by Abu Daoud (4 Jan. 2010)

I have often complained about the lack of a culture of lay missions in the Catholic Church. And then you find something like FMC. In one way, this is very encouraging. But the main problem that I see with this is that the missionaries are sent out with the permission of the local bishop. Now how many Catholic bishops in the Middle East are going to tell some lay missionaries they can come over and evangelize Muslims? The answer is close to zero. The Catholic Church has physical resources scattered throughout the region, from hospitals to schools to monasteries to historical sites. In all honesty, and I'm not saying this to be a jerk, the upkeep and well-being of those physical resources will almost always trump Muslim evangelism. And the bishops, in a way, are right. When you get into the business of Muslim evangelism you really are putting everything on the line. Calling Muslims to embrace Christianity stirs up Islamic anger like few other things. Might there be a bishop here or there who is willing to do this? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.

But that doesn't mean groups like FMC and Kerygma Teams (both Catholic) can't have a successful ministry to Muslims. I am thinking that bishops in places like southern Spain and some of the French ports would be happy to have lay missionaries explicitly (if quietly) working to evangelize Muslims. Ah but then you run into the funding problem. Catholic parishes do not have a tradition of supporting lay missions like Protestant churches do. Depending on where you are in the Middle East I would say a family can get by on between $70,000 to $100,000 a year in donations. That might seem like a lot, but from the top of that take of 10-15% which goes to administration of the missionary agency, then account for travel, communications, health insurance, and so on, and you're left with a man making about $40,000 gross in self-employment income. Work out the taxes and SEI and you end up with a man who has a net income of $15k to $30k.

But Europe is a different story. I would say Europe is about twice as expensive as the Middle East. So unless your independently wealthy (and I don't really know any missionaries who are) you have to raise funds from local churches. Figure in the fact that Catholics rarely tithe to their churches, and when they do it is at about 50% the rate of Protestants.

In sum, while I applaud this groups like FMC, I don't see how they can make a substantial contribution to the Church's mission to Islam.