As a Christian Arab, a Baptist pastor says his difficult mission is to convert Muslims.
By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 2, 2002
KISSIMMEE -- Peter and Hend Shadid have just arrived at the empty chapel. It's 4:45 p.m., 15 minutes before their Sunday service begins. They gather Arabic hymnals and turn on the lone microphone.
"We are a small congregation," Peter Shadid says, hurriedly explaining the low turnout he expects tonight at his Arabic Evangelical Church.
Shadid's target audience, Muslims in Central Florida, has been slow to embrace his ministry. He wants to turn them away from the Islamic teachings of Mohammed and toward Christianity.
It won't be easy, Shadid laments. Christian evangelical missions have had less success with Muslims than with other religious groups or with nonbelievers. Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths on earth.
"The Muslims are most difficult to reach," Shadid says.
The terrorist attacks in September, thought to be committed by radical Muslims, added various complications to Christian-Muslim relations in the United States. Some Christians invited Islamic leaders to speak to their congregations, forging interfaith friendships. Others saw the attacks as a call to turn up their proselytizing efforts.
Shadid, a Baptist pastor, has been on the latter road for some time. He and his wife, raised in Christian families in Syria, have traveled the world with the gospel on their lips.
"I am a Christian Arab, and God has called me to work with all Arabs and Muslims," he says. "Not only since Sept. 11, but since I was born."
The Shadids used to live in St. Petersburg, where they helped run a meeting house for international students from the University of South Florida and what was then called St. Petersburg Junior College.
The couple moved to Orlando in 1990 and started a Bible study in their home three years ago. Later they began holding weekly services in an old sanctuary wing of the First Baptist Church of Kissimmee, which lets the Shadids use the space. They also have Arabic radio shows that air in the Titusville and Daytona Beach areas.
"We speak Arabic. We are from the same culture that you are," 69-year-old Mrs. Shadid says she tells Arab Muslims. "We have oneness."
After hearing the Shadids on the radio, the wife of a Moroccan-born Muslim called. The couple visited the Shadids, who talked about salvation and Jesus Christ. The husband began to read the Bible.
"He accepted the Lord in my home," Shadid says. "He loves the whole Lord."
The man is one of the three converts at the service on this December night. About 30 worshipers regularly come for the weekly service; 22 have come this Sunday. Most are Arabs who were raised as Christians.
The Moroccan man and his wife sit near the back of the sanctuary, listening as Shadid preaches.
"The world was in darkness," Shadid says. "And Jesus said to them, "I am the way. I am the righteous and the truth. I am the life. . . .' "
The Moroccan man, like a converted Arab woman in the service, is afraid to give his name or to be open about his Christianity. Both say they fear fanatical Muslims who regard those who leave Islam for another religion to be the worst of infidels.
The woman, a teacher, has been a Christian for eight years but rarely professes her religion to Muslim Arabs. When Arabs ask if she is a Muslim, the woman tells them she is "not practicing," but does not elaborate -- unless she feels God wants her to.
Only one of the converts will give his name: Mohsen Abdoun, 60, born in Egypt. He usually attends a Baptist church in St. Cloud but is a guest speaker at Arabic Evangelical tonight.
If someone had told him 40 years ago that one day he would be a Christian, "I would have told them, "You are crazy,' " Abdoun tells the congregation.
The small number of Christians he knew in Egypt were orthodox, too staid in their worship for his taste. "Finally, by the grace of God, I ended up coming to the United States," he says.
While attending New York University, he met Christians whose style of worship was different from those in Egypt. They had a more personal relationship with God, he says. Abdoun married a Christian woman who prayed for his conversion. He visited a Baptist church and began studying the Bible. He converted 30 years ago.
Ever since, Abdoun says, he has been going to seminars, working with Arab Christians and "witnessing" to Muslims. Abdoun says he is not fearful of retaliation from Muslims in America.
Shadid says he has met Muslims who are scared to convert or to acknowledge their Christianity openly once they do. He doesn't know how many Muslims he has converted but says there are many. For some, his teachings planted the seed for a later conversion, he says. Others, he believes, have kept their conversion to themselves because of the fears.
"They keep it in their hearts," Shadid says. "They are hidden Christians."
In some Middle Eastern nations, religious freedom is forbidden. But Islamic leaders say Muslims in America have no reason to fear retaliation if they want to convert.
To say otherwise in the wake of the terrorist attacks is a "cheap shot at the (Islamic) religion," said Mohammad Sultan, director of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, one of the largest mosques locally.
"It's just propaganda," says Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando.
Christian evangelicals targeting Muslims is common in Central Florida, Musri says. "I have received some of their books before, but it is all propaganda. It is not true."
Musri does not believe Muslims are changing faiths, as some Christian ministries claim. "Frankly, there are none, or close to none, who actually converted."
Musri says he has never met a person who once believed in Islam but converted to Christianity. But he says he has met many Christians who have converted to Islam.
On one thing, Musri and Christian evangelicals agree. It is easier to convert nonbelievers or people of other denominations than it is to separate a Muslim from his faith.
Both Christians and Muslims believe that Jesus Christ was a prophet. But Christians say he was also the son of God.
"It is difficult for a Christian to convince a Muslim that God has a son," Musri says. The Roman Catholic belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is harder to fathom, he says. "That God is three, the Trinity? That's nearly impossible."
Musri believes that many Arabs who say they were converted are lying and that they were actually Christians all along. He thinks they are using tales of conversion to get financial backing from evangelical ministries.
In the Tampa Bay area, Sultan says, Christian proselytizing to Muslims is not common. No one has tried to convert him, he says. Since the attacks, he is enjoying the bonding among mosques, churches and synagogues.
If a Muslim wants to convert, Sultan says, the Koran teaches peace and religious freedom.
"One makes choices," Sultan said. "We are responsible for the choices we make in our life."
"The greatest challenge for the church today is reaching the Muslims," says Bradlee Sargent, an American-born computer programmer and a member of Shadid's church.
Sargent says he saw the importance of evangelizing Muslims in 1983, when he lived in Saudi Arabia. He saw how some Middle Eastern governments stopped missionaries from spreading what they called "the good news of Jesus Christ."
There were Arabs who had never heard Christian doctrine. "I said, "Wow, what is the church doing about this?' "
Sargent began working with evangelical Christian ministries worldwide, toting his Bible throughout Germany, Boston, San Diego and now, Orlando and Kissimmee.
Evangelicals in the Orlando area and statewide have their work cut out for them.
Islam dominates the Arab culture in the Middle East, but that is not true in the United States, Musri says. Here, Christian Arabs number 3-million, while Muslim Arabs total about 1-million.
But in Florida, Muslims are not the minority among Arabs. Of the Arabic-speaking people in the state, more than 50 percent are Muslims, according to William G. Andrews, an Arab Christian pastor in West Palm Beach who was interviewed for a recent article in the Florida Baptist Witness, a publication of the Florida Baptist Convention.
About 30,000 Muslims live in the Orlando area and attend 12 mosques, Musri says.
Sargent wants to see more Arabic churches like Shadid's sprout up in the area. He says Christians have been loath to spread the gospel to Muslims.
"People are intimidated by Islam," he said. "Christians are intimidated by the word terrorist."
Evangelical ministries targeting Muslims saw the Sept. 11 attacks as a mandate to reach out.
On www.arabicbible.com, the Web site for the Arabic Bible Outreach Ministry, is this message: "We like to offer this perspective to our Christian Brethren. The hijacking, the suicide attacks and the tragedy of the World Trade Center are a cry from the Muslim world "GIVE US THE GOSPEL!!' to the Christian Church. May it be a wake-up call for the Western Christian Church to mobilize and reach out (to) the Muslim and Arab World."
From www.cmmequip.org, the site for the Center for Ministry to Muslims: "God is not willing that Muslims, the descendants of Ishmael, should be without an adequate witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Neither are we. Are you?"
At Shadid's church, the sermon is in Arabic, as are the praise songs. An Arab college professor translates for those who speak English. The only words that need no interpretation are "hallelujah" and "amen."
It is after 7 p.m. when the service ends. Worshipers hug one another, gather in an adjacent room for coffee and holiday cookies popular in the Middle East. They talk about happenings in each others' lives and laugh together.
Shadid says this spiritual fellowship is what Jesus Christ was all about. It's what he wants to share with Muslims.
"We love Muslims," he says. "But we refute Islam."