Inflated accounts of how many Muslims are converting to Christianity are putting the lives of these vulnerable followers of Jesus Christ at risk, warns an expert on Islam and Christianity.
Reports in recent months have cited "astounding statistics of conversion," noted Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of the persecution watchdog group Barnabas Fund, in a newsletter Wednesday. These exaggerated figures incite Muslim violence against converts and inspire greater Muslim evangelism, he said.
"Muslims view apostasy from Islam as bringing shame and humiliation on the Muslim community," Sookhdeo, a former Muslim, explained. "Publicizing that there are large numbers of converts deepens the shame and loss of face."
In response, "many" Muslims believe the shame is best removed by the shedding of blood of not only the convert, but those who seek to convert Muslims, he said. Some may even go further to get revenge and restore honor to Islam by attacking anyone associated with the "Christian" West.
Sookhdeo offered several reasons why someone would exaggerate the number of converts. Sometimes it is due to pure miscalculations stemming from the lack of clear information, such as names of the converts, when collecting data.
Other times, it is because cross-cultural missionaries misinterpret what they see. For missionaries who grew up in an individualistic Western culture, he said, they might mistakenly believe that, say, 1,000 responding to an "altar call" means that 1,000 people have accepted Christ into their lives.
But in many local cultures, people are more likely to go to the altar because of their community mindset than because they believe in Jesus Christ. In other words, they see their neighbor going to the front of the church and they follow.
Another reason behind number inflation is that people are unaware of historic indigenous churches in many Muslim-majority countries. So when someone sees a large Christian congregation, such as in Egypt, they mistakenly assume that all the worshippers must be converts from Islam.
There are also cases of deliberate efforts to exaggerate the numbers of converts. Muslim leaders have sometimes offered false numbers of Muslims becoming Christians in hope of alarming Muslims to persuade them to give more generously to Islamic missionary effort.
There is also a "very strong anti-evangelism move" within Islam recently, aimed at blocking Christian mission work among Muslims. By saying that there are a large number of converts to Christianity, Muslims fuel the Muslim-majority public opinion against Christian evangelism.
Also, since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and the "war on terror," Muslims have increasingly argued that President Bush's policy is to transform the Middle East into a "Christian entity" using Christian mission combined with American military might. Motivation to prove this theory has caused some Muslim leaders to claim higher numbers of converts to Christianity.
"This totally erroneous linkage has created more danger for Western forces based in Muslim countries as well as for Christian missionaries, whether expatriate or national," Sookhdeo said.
In addition to Muslims, some Christians are also at fault for intentionally enlarging the number of converts. To gain greater financial support, some Christian groups have inflated the number of converts to Christianity, he said.
But Sookhdeo does acknowledge that at this current time in history, there are more Muslims coming to Christ than at any other time. However, he still expressed serious concerns about the misrepresentation of the number of those coming to Christ.
"Converts are increasingly concerned at the way in which publicity in the West is creating extra danger for them," Sookhdeo said. "The present 'numbers game' is proving deadly.
"While it is good to highlight in public discussions the issue of Islamic law's death sentence for apostasy, the quoting of provocative numbers in the Western media is not welcomed by converts," he added. "In any case there are many secret believers known only to God."
Besides heading Barnabas Fund, Sookhdeo is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity.