NOTE: An article with a response by a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations follows this story.
When a missionary to the Islamic world told Pastor Rob Hollis of First Baptist Church of Texico that he’d be available to speak, the church jumped at the chance to offer a presentation on Islam to the community.
On Sunday, David Witt of the Voice of the Martyrs organization, a ministry that a number of church members have supported for years, will lead seminars at 9 and 10:15 a.m. at the church.
“Because we don’t know enough about the Muslim religion and the movement and the focus of Islam, and he is a keynote speaker in the United States in this area and has contributed to a lot of enlightenment among Christian people, I did contact him,” Hollis said. “Christians all over the world are being persecuted by Muslims.”
While attacks on Christians by Muslims in nations such as Sudan and Indonesia have received the most media attention, Hollis said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks caused many in his church to believe Islamic terrorism wasn’t limited to foreign Christians but also could be a threat to America.
“I think it heightened the awareness of all Christians — I hope it did,” Hollis said. “If it didn’t, then this would be part of the reason for bringing David in. For those who don’t understand really the backing, the focus, and the intent of 9-11, of course it will shed some light on that.”
Glenn Keim, an elder at the church, said that attack was what caused him to start studying Islam.
“It’s very interesting when this 9-11 happened, the primary motivating factor for these men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers was they would have 70 virgins at their disposal and their pleasure eternally,” Keim said. “It struck me as very odd that their God would entice them to commit acts of violence and murder, warfare, with a promise of immoral reward. The disparity of that between what we are promised as Christians, being in the presence of God himself, it couldn’t be more different.”
Keim said several members of First Baptist Church have served in a predominantly Islamic nation as missionaries, and one of his relatives has served in an Islamic nation.
“It is perceived by many Christians who don’t understand what Islam is about that it is a religion of peace,” Hollis said. “Quite the contrary. (My relative) found that to be not only verbally communicated to him but physically. He watched the degradation of humanity at the hands of the Muslims because of a difference in religious preference — physical beatings of Christians and anyone who would reject the Muslim faith.”
Hollis said even when physical persecution isn’t present, economic discrimination against non-Muslims exists.
“You are treated as a second-class citizen or worse,” Hollis said.
“We have a really very tolerant society, and when (our members) learn about the religious persecution that takes place, sometimes it’s one thing to hear about it on the news or read about it in the paper, but it’s entirely different if you experience it yourself or have someone you know personally relate it to you,” Keim said. “I think we in America, in most instances, see life through rose-colored glasses and don’t understand the harshness and the realities of what the cultures of Islamic countries can impose on other individuals they do not recognize.”
Keim said the number one challenge for American Christians in reaching the Muslim world is ignorance.
“We just don’t know, and we need to become educated,” Keim said.
“There’s still a persecuted church out there that are our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are true followers of Jesus Christ,” Hollis said. “For us to say that this does not affect me is an oxymoron because it does affect my family.”
Hollis said his church has been supporting Iraqi Christians through the Voice of the Martyrs ministry and wants to do what it can to present the gospel to Muslims.
“We don’t hate, we don’t want to cause strife, we don’t want to go to blows, and we don’t want to sit and just have rhetoric for no purpose, but there is a truth, and unless that truth is received by faith in the person of Jesus Christ there is ultimate condemnation,” Hollis said.
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Rabiah Ahmed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said she appreciated the desire of Christians to learn more about Islam, but wished that First Baptist Church of Texico had invited a Muslim speaker to explain the Islamic faith from the Islamic perspective.
“It’s not going to help anybody if it is presented from a biased perspective,” Ahmed said. “We invite church communities to invite a Muslim from a speakers’ bureau to come and speak. We’ve noticed in the post-9-11 climate that there has been a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric that shows up in churches and incites hatred toward Muslims and divides rather than unites us.”
“People need to be very responsible with the words they use and the way they describe millions and millions of Americans,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, a media spokeswoman at CAIR’s national office in Washington, said her organization has four chapters in Texas — Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio — but none in New Mexico. CAIR exists to correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations about Islam, she said.
“There are obviously going to be differences of opinion and beliefs, and that’s fine as long as we respect people’s right to practice religion as they choose,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said the most common current misperception about Islam is that all Muslims are terrorists and supporters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“We felt our religion was being hijacked,” Ahmed said. “We took out a full-page ad in the New York Times letting people know exactly where we stood, making clear that we as Muslim Americans condemn any form of terrorism. We’ve issued statements since then in press releases and through interviews reiterating that point.”
Ahmed said considerable misunderstanding exists in the Christian community about the Muslim doctrine of “jihad.”
“People have the misconception that jihad means holy war, and that is not true,” Ahmed said. “Jihad is a struggle that one person has for the sake of God. It can be a struggle to be more spiritual and cut back on sin, have a stronger faith, be kinder to people, don’t backbite, don’t lie. Jihad for society is benefiting society, giving charity.”
While Islam, like many non-pacifist Christian denominations, does teach that war is allowed, Ahmed said war according to Islamic standards has strict rules and the attacks on the World Trade Center didn’t meet those standards.
“You cannot hurt any innocent bystander, including civilians, the elderly, children, women. Even trees and flowers should not be harmed,” Ahmed said. “It is very different from what happened on Sept. 11.”
As a Muslim woman, Ahmed said people sometimes misunderstand her wearing of a head scarf and the role of women in Islam.
“Wearing the head scarf is an act of modesty for most Muslim women,” she said. “There is a basic misconception out there that Muslim women are oppressed. While that may be the reality in certain communities throughout the Muslim world, it is not the teaching of Islam. This complaint about oppressing people is not exclusive to Islam, it is in many societies.”
Ahmed said Christians have the right to present their beliefs in mission work but need to be respectful of others.
“Muslims have no problem listening to people present their views on religion,” Ahmed said. “While we defend people’s rights to talk about religion and have dialogue, we do not appreciate people going into a third-world country and using relief work as a mask for their missionary work; those two things should be separate. No religion should be imposed on anybody.”