In 2013, Bashir Mohammad belonged to a terrorist group fighting to establish an extremist Islamic state in Syria. Today, Bashir Mohammad is one of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled that very war and settled in Turkey.
It was in Turkey that Mohammad’s story took a surprising turn. Mohammad became a follower of Jesus.
“Frankly I would have slaughtered anyone who suggested it,” Mohammad said of his conversion in last Saturday’s New York Times.
But then a series of changes pulled Mohammad out of the world he knew. He became disillusioned with the war his Al-Qaeda-affiliated group was waging. Leaving the group meant death, so Mohammad fled with his wife, Hevin Rashid, to Turkey. Once there, Rashid became seriously ill, but recovered after Mohammad’s cousin, a converted Christian, prayed for her.
This experience led Mohammad to a Christian preacher in Istanbul, and after both Mohammad and Rashid dreamt they saw the person of Jesus and felt deeply loved by him, they converted to the Christian faith. “There’s a big gap between the god I used to worship and the one I worship now,” Mohammad said. “We used to worship in fear. Now everything has changed.”
Mohammad’s story parallels a growing wave of conversions among Muslim refugees in European countries. According to a recent article in The Guardian, multiple churches are reporting surges in refugees converting to the Christian faith. The Austrian Catholic Church reported 300 requests for adult baptisms over the past three months and estimate 70 percent of these were from refugees. According to the Anglican Bishop of Bradford, Toby Howarth, one in four of the church’s conversions in England over the past year are refugees.
It’s worth putting an asterisk next to these numbers, however. It is likely that some Muslims are “converting” to improve their immigration status in countries less hospitable to their faith. Because many European churches are leading the way in helping Muslims with their refugee status, it becomes easy to see how “giving the right answer” to certain questions about religion is tempting. However, there are many cases, like Mohammad’s, where the conversion comes from a genuine attraction to the Christian faith.
Johannes, a 32-year-old born into a Muslim family, began questioning the roots of Islam at university. “I found that the history of Islam was completely different from what we were taught at school. Maybe, I thought, it was a religion that began with violence? A religion that began with violence cannot lead people to freedom and love. Jesus Christ said ‘those who use the sword will die by the sword.’ This really changed my mind.”
Johannes is now in Austria, awaiting word on whether he can stay or whether he will be deported back to Iran, where his life will be in danger. Fuller professor Matthew Kaemingk recently told Fox News that many refugees like Johannes are stuck under a “tremendous amount of societal pressure. They experience racism, poverty, exclusion, discrimination, language and cultural barriers, and a deep sense of displacement,” Kaemingk said. “Their sense of homelessness is not only geographical, it is spiritual. Churches who offer these Muslims real and meaningful hospitality are seeing some surprising results.”
That being said, the Islamic faith is still rapidly growing globally. According to a recent Pew Report, by 2050 Muslims will comprise 10 percent of the European population and will outnumber Christians by the end of the century. In the United States, Muslims will make up 2.1 percent of the population by 2050, surpassing Judaism as the second largest faith group in America.
Both within the American political and evangelical world, there have been huge debates over immigration and how to deal with it. However, for some churches, the influx of Muslims to the United States presents an opportunity. The Jan/Feb Issue of Outreach Magazine reported on First United Methodist Church of the Rockies’ efforts to extend hospitality to the refugees relocated into their community.
“I don’t think we should question whether it’s a good idea to serve refugees in today’s political climate, because I don’t think this is political—it’s biblical,” said Cindy Todeschi, point person for Church of the Rockies’ relief efforts. “It’s about discipleship. We don’t think about it any more than we think about serving a hot meal to our homeless population or providing coats to less-fortunate kids in the elementary school. We’re not thinking of it as something controversial. You just find a way to help however you can.”
Whatever the circumstances are for refugees seeking the help of our communities or churches, there is one thing we know to be true: They deserve to hear the gospel and be given whatever help we can provide. We trust that God can even use the horrible wars and the deplorable circumstances that bring refugees into our countries for His good.