The debate about 'proselytizing'


Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

President George W. Bush said that his conversations with Miss Curry and Miss Mercer have been an "uplifting experience" for him. In their initial phone call, Miss Mercer later told WORLD, the president was upbeat, too. She quoted him as saying, "We've been praying for you. We know it was God who got you out."

Miss Mercer's talk on Dec. 3 at Vienna (Va.) Presbyterian Church, where she had spent her teen years, was also upbeat. She recounted her conversion as a high-school sophomore, her spiritual development, her involvement in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, and her move to Waco and Baptist-rooted Baylor University, where she met "people who loved Jesus so much, and they weren't freaks." Members of a home group at Antioch Community Church "discipled" her, she said, and soon she was taking short mission trips to Mexico, Eastern Europe, and Pakistan.

Miss Mercer said she "told the Lord, 'I want to go to places where it's hard to share Your name.'" She and Miss Curry went to Afghanistan last March to work for Shelter Now International, a Christian aid organization based in Germany. They taught poor children to make cards and artificial flowers they could sell on the street instead of having to beg. Relationships with families began forming. One, apparently a setup, led to the arrests of the women and six other Shelter Now workers-four from Germany and two from Australia-on charges of proselytism.

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In the end, Miss Mercer said, "God had a purpose" in the ordeal, and part of it may have been to move more Americans to pray and to get serious about global evangelization. But on several talk shows, hosts raised with her and Miss Curry the issue of whether aid workers should be trying to "proselytize" or do "missionary work" in places where it is illegal (including most Muslim-governed countries).

Miss Mercer and Miss Curry defended their right to answer faith-related questions when people ask. "We are Christians ... we cannot deny who we are," Miss Mercer said. Miss Curry contended the word proselytism is a vague one subject to different interpretations. Muslims generally equate it with giving aid or other incentives to entice someone to change their religion, she said. "We are completely innocent of that," she declared. "We were just trying to love people and serve them and help them any way we could."

The issue is being batted around by others. Some mission leaders say the high visibility of the Shelter Now episode may make it tougher for Christian aid workers in Muslim countries. Government officials who routinely looked the other way in the past at non-wave-making minor infractions may no longer do so, they warn.

Muslim governments will become more cautious in granting visas to Christian aid workers, asserts J. Dudley Woodberry, a professor at Fuller Seminary's world mission school. Christian aid workers should respect local laws and abide by agreements they made to enter the country, he asserts. "Our integrity is part of God's law."

But Samuel Shaid, who directs the Islamic studies program at Southern Baptist-related Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, says any law in any nation against sharing the Christian message must be trumped by a higher authority. The people at Antioch Community Church would say a hearty "amen" to Mr. Shaid, for Antioch is committed to establishing colonies of Christian believers in "difficult" countries.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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