Six days a week for 50 years, Kozman Wasef rose before the sun in the small Southern Egyptian village of Dakouf to greet both locals and travelers from surrounding villages. As the line in front of his home grew, Wasef, a Presbyterian minister, administered ointment to children's eyes, treating an infection common in rural areas where doctors were few. He quickly became known as "the father of the village" by both Christians and Muslims, and many heard and received the gospel through his ministry.
Now his son, Mofid, has his own ministry in the heart of Rancho Bernardo, Calif. After attending seminary at nearby Westminster, the younger Wasef-realizing there was no Arabic fellowship in the area-started a church with another family from Lebanon. That was in 1996. Ten years later, the church, supported by Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church, has about a hundred members, including several who drive an hour or more to worship with other Arabic-speaking believers. And meeting Wasef's vision for the area, some of his congregants are Muslim-background believers (MBBs), a relatively unknown segment of society.
Facing penalties as extreme as death, MBBs are often part of a quiet current of believers in the Middle East, with many still donning traditional Muslim dress to avoid the consequences of their conversions. Even in more democratic nations, most face repercussions such as ostracism from their families or denial of entrance into their former countries.
But Wasef has witnessed the work of the gospel in the lives of many former Muslims and is researching their conversions as part of his doctorate in Islamic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. After interviewing 72 MBBs from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, he narrowed their experiences of conversion into three primary and typically overlapping categories: visions, media outreach, and the Bible.
Although reported visions play a relatively small role in the conversion decisions of Westerners, some studies report that more than 25 percent of Muslim-background believers say they were influenced by a dream or vision. Wasef tells about a Muslim who entered his office after reportedly having a vision of Jesus and wanted to be baptized immediately. Instead, Wasef spent several months sharing the gospel and answering his questions. The man eventually made a credible profession of faith in Christ.
Christian media outreach to Muslims has been another powerful ministry tool, particularly in the Middle East, and both radio (see "Medium and message," March 25) and television ministries have experienced exponential growth in the past few decades. Sat-7-a satellite channel that reaches six million Arabic-speaking viewers in 21 countries each day-is celebrating its 10th anniversary and preparing to expand into Iran and Turkey.
Other television stations, including METV and Agape TV in Egypt, are also penetrating the region but are often cautious about being publicly linked to conversions, making exact numbers even more difficult to gauge.
The Bible, however, remains the primary factor in transforming lives, Wasef said: "The Bible is a big fact. When they read the Bible, [it] changes them right away. It's better than any talk or any debates. When I sit down and talk with [Muslims], all that I say is from the Bible."
Public debates between Muslims and Christians are not effective ministry tools, and Christian literature is usually ineffective as well, Wasef said. Statements such as those made by prominent evangelical leaders calling Islam "wicked" and criticizing Muhammad also tend to drive Muslims away from Christianity.
Wasef teaches seminars about Islam in an attempt to prepare Christians for meaningful discussions and bridge-building with Muslim neighbors, but emphasizes that it often starts with eye ointment . . . or a plate of cookies: "These people would love to see American neighbors approach them and show them love. Many times we close our doors and sit inside our home-if we would just walk some cookies out to our neighbor and show them friendship. Hospitality in the Middle East is very important."