The Perilous Path from Muslim to Christian

The Perilous Path from Muslim to Christian

More Muslims are converting to Christianity than ever before and at great personal risk. What accounts for the trend?

Soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Muslim World League Secretary-General Abdullah al-Turki warned that “non-Muslim organizations” (meaning Christian missionaries) had entered Iraq “to start their activity under the cover of providing humanitarian aid” and warned of “the dangers this poses to Muslims.” Ahmed al-Shafie of the Association of Muslim Scholars in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, denounced a supposed secret influx of Christian missionaries: “We strongly condemn this disgraceful act against Islam and Muslims which demonstrates that there are hidden hands with foreign agendas [working] to destroy the society of this country.” Another Muslim figure in Sulaymaniyah repeated this accusation in 2007: “Missionaries are exploiting the harsh economic situation that these youths experience in these areas as they are unemployed and almost depressed. In some cases, the youths want to go abroad and [conversion to Christianity] is an easy way to achieve their dream as they can say that they are threatened and need a safe haven.”

In 2006, an official at Algeria’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, Mohamed Aissat, claimed that Christian missionaries entice local Muslims with such offers and “profit from the confusion of youths to convert them.” (He also noted that “Numerous youths have repented, returning to Islam.”) That same year, Algeria’s government passed a law prohibiting “anyone urging or forcing or tempting, to convert a Muslim to another religion” on pain of 2-to-5 years in prison and a fine of €5,000-€10,000. Two Muslim converts to Christianity were sentenced to two years in prison and €5,000 fines under this law in 2008 for “proselytizing and the illegal practice of a non-Islamic religion.”

Living as a Christian

Winning MBBs is half the battle; getting them to stay Christian is the other half. A study of returnees to Islam in Indonesia by Julia Sianturi found several factors driving their actions:

Strong attachment to their family and deep Islamic roots seem to be the major leading causes to their decision to return to Islam. Discrimination from surrounding community and the divinity of Jesus might have some influence in their decision making. And their disappointment toward pastoral ethics raises a concern due to its effects on MBBs’ perception of the church and Christianity.

So great are these difficulties, Andrew van der Bijl and Al Janssen acknowledge that “at least half of all Muslim converts [to Christianity] return to Islam.” To address this issue, Duane Miller wrote a book with ideas on providing unprecedented numbers of MBBs with “a new and welcoming home.”

Converts who do remain Christian face various challenging alternatives:

1. Keep their conversion quiet by maintaining complete secrecy and continuing with the appearance and habits of a Muslim. Many, Nelson notes, still don “traditional Muslim dress to avoid the consequences of their conversions.” In some cases, they even maintain the myriad of Islamic customs and rituals. But this means suffering from deep solitude and moral failure. The pressure can become unbearable.

2. Announce the change of faith (or confiding in a close relative or friend who, outraged by the news, betrays the convert’s trust) leads to MBBs having their world turned upside-down. They face unremitting and sometimes violent pressure from family, society, and government, a sense of isolation, and a loss of income. They cannot leave their Muslim identity. They may be forcibly treated for mental illness. When only one spouse converts, marriages can be broken up and contact with children lost. In Muslim-majority countries, authorities typically refuse to acknowledge conversions out of Islam, trapping MBBs legally as Muslims; female converts who may only marry fellow Muslims as their identity cards list them as Muslims, are limited to marrying male MBBs. Ironically, born-Christians avoid MBBs, and established churches reject them, leery of being accused of having been party to their conversions and punished accordingly. As one priest cruelly put it, converts “need to keep quiet about their belief in our Lord, or we all will suffer.”

3. Relocate to another city to make a fresh start as born-Christians means leaving family behind, starting new social relationships, and earning a quiet living, while ever fearful of recognition or exposure.

4. Emigrate to non-Muslim-majority countries may seem like the perfect solution, but it is not. Beyond the strains of re-establishing one’s life anew, usually with a new language, Islamic pressure can continue unrelentingly even there. Some MBBs remain scared of their home governments and so live in “an atmosphere laden with overwhelming suspicion.” One convert observes that “Maybe someone inside the church is one of them.” Accordingly, “refugees are careful to keep their distance from each other, never revealing information about their cases or details of their lives back home.” Women face special problems. As the European Centre for Law and Justice notes about France, “a significant proportion of the converted women are threatened with being forcibly married, sent to their parents' country of origin or sequestered as long as they do not return to Islam. In infrequent [and] increasingly rare cases, converts are lynched or even killed by Islamists.” Thus do the fear and loneliness continue.


Substantial voluntary conversions from Muslim to Christian amount to a historic novelty, one that alters a venerable imbalance, whereby Islam almost invariably poached believers at Christianity’s expense. This turnaround has potentially great implications for how Muslims see themselves and their religion; the traditional confidence deriving from one-way conversions no longer holds; will something else replace it; or will this vulnerability undermine Muslim confidence? The implications run deep.

Conversions to Christianity, in turn, make up part of a larger move away from Islam, one that also includes conversion to other religions (especially Zoroastrianism among Kurds and Hinduism among Indians; Judaism and Buddhism also attract converts) as well as the adoption of deism and atheism. Together, these related trends pose a seldom-noticed but significant development that goes far to negate the widely-noted Islamist surge of the past half-century. Indeed, they can potentially undo that surge.

Daniel Pipes (, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2021 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

Image: Reuters