National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

Evangelicals stir new animosity toward Islam

In this otherwise stagnant economy, one growth industry is making headway. It emanates from the evangelical Christian community and it is aimed at converting Muslims to Christianity.

One can understand the attraction to clearly drawn lines and the “we’re right, so they must be wrong” approach of evangelical Christians to Islam. Clear lines and, best of all, an opponent one is willing to fight for God’s sake, make life easy to figure out.

Otherwise, contact among world religions can be a difficult undertaking, requiring great understanding, patience, study, respect for other traditions and a willingness to allow actions rather than words to speak for convictions.

A recent New York Times story documents the campaign by some evangelical Christians to depict Islam as “regressive, fraudulent and violent” and its adherents in need of conversion.

The language behind the current campaign is simply ugly and is built on the thinking and words of some of this country’s highest profile evangelical Protestant leaders. Several years ago, Pat Robertson, the TV preacher who dabbles in politics, called Islam a “violent religion” intent on world domination.

Other evangelical Christian figures have mounted attacks on Islam. Franklin Graham, son of the famous preacher Billy Graham, called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion,” while Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called Islam’s founder, Muhammad, a “demon-possessed pedophile.”

In the Catholic world, Pope John Paul II has provided abundant example of an opposite approach.

Several times the pope has termed Christians and Muslims “brothers in Abraham,” and in 1985, the pope said, “As I have often said in other meetings with Muslims, your God and ours is one and the same, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham.”

More recently, the pope is credited by Muslim leaders with helping to ease rising tensions throughout the Islamic world by opposing the war in Iraq and by insisting the war was not a Christian campaign against Islam. The pope is certainly aware that in some areas of the world Christians are persecuted by Islamic extremists. Not wanting to exacerbate such conflicts certainly figured into opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But his characterization of Islam would suggest far more than a political strategy at work. Battling one extremism with another promises only endless fighting.

The pope’s language represents a profound change in church attitude in recent decades, one far more in step with an approach to other faiths that recognizes both the dignity of all human beings and the integrity of the search for spiritual fulfillment even when it occurs outside the Christian tradition.

In many cases, the approach of Catholic missionaries in Islamic cultures has changed over the years, some in reaction to severe threats to those who dare to proselytize, but others out of a conviction that successfully witnessing to Jesus in a culture may not always mean counting converts.

Many Catholic missionaries, to loosely paraphrase the Franciscan admonition, preached Christ constantly and used words when necessary.

In that Times piece, religion writer Laurie Goodstein quoted Akbar Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University, someone educated in Catholic and Protestant missionary schools in Pakistan, as saying the recent hostility toward Islam in some Christian circles is something new.

“The whole range of Muslims, from orthodox to liberal secularists, are all lined up against these attacks coming from the American evangelists,” he said.

So the U.S. evangelists, who write books and give seminars on converting Muslims, have at least accomplished uniting the Muslim world on one point: concern over U.S. evangelicals.

Oddly enough, the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted to Goodstein that evangelicals “have substituted Islam for the Soviet Union. The Muslims have become the modern-day equivalent of the Evil Empire.”

The world doesn’t need any more religious wars.

Religion is invoked enough as it is in too many local conflicts. There certainly are better ways, and some of them are illustrated in Paul Jeffrey’s report from Indonesia (see story). Perhaps it takes such extreme violence as that witnessed in Indonesia and East Timor to force religious leaders to look for alternatives that will not inspire more bloodshed. Two years ago in Indonesia, religious leaders, including Evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, joined to form the National Moral Movement. The alliance has been active in easing tensions among religious groups.

Perhaps Graham, Robertson, Vine and others would do well to visit with their evangelical Protestant brothers and sisters in areas of the world where cooperation among the faiths and respect for different traditions are essential to survival.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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