Crusaders at the Gates

Avoiding Christian Proselytizers at the Islamic Society of Orange County

Illustration by Bob AulAround 2 p.m. every Friday, following the conclusion of afternoon prayers, the Muslim faithful at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove find out that the prophet Muhammad is the agent of Satan.

Sometimes, they read this in pamphlets and fliers mixed in with ads for restaurants and clothing stores at the Islamic Society's information table. Other times, they discover Jesus-praising, Muhammad-hating letters allegedly written by former Muslims strewn about the mosque's grounds. Occasionally, a group of Christians stands outside the Islamic Society's parking-lot gates and rush the exiting cars. Stuck in traffic, the drivers can do little but accept the Christians' charity: booklets and audiotapes warning that submission to Allah guarantees hell.

The Christians seek damned souls; the Muslims drive on.

"They walk up to you and, instead of showing how great Christianity is, spend their time badmouthing Islam," says one Muslim who has encountered Christians at the Islamic Society several times. "It's not a conversation. The Christians don't yell or anything—they're pushy but in a nice sort of way."

Christian proselytizing at the Islamic Society has occurred intermittently since its founding in the early 1970s. But after Sept. 11, 2001, and especially in the months following the start of the Iraq war, Orange County's largest mosque has weathered increased visits from Christians simultaneously preaching the loving compassion of Jesus and His wrath toward nonbelievers—the dove and the sword, if you will. Other local mosques have reported visits by Christians in the past year, but none report evangelizing as frequent or inflammatory as that experienced at OC's Islamic Society.

Although various Christians leaflet at the Islamic Center, members say the two principal groups are Courageous Christians United and the Arabic Christian Education Center. The former, a Hemet-based organization, is familiar to local Muslims thanks to previous protests outside the Anaheim offices of the Council on American Islamic Relations. The website for Courageous Christians United warns readers about Muslim events held at the Anaheim Convention Center that "try to entice thousands of SoCal College kids to become Muslims" and includes a chart asserting that the royal Saud family controls everything from Condoleezza Rice to Fox News.

More sinister is the Arabic Christian Education Center, a nonprofit founded by Muslims-turned-Christians that operates from a one-room headquarters in the heart of Anaheim's Little Arabia district. Most anti-Muslim fliers sneaked into the Islamic Society bear contact information for the center, which advertises Friday "outreach to Muslims" activities in Southern California-based Christian newspapers. This spring, they also sponsored a lecture series titled "Islam or Liberty? It's Your Choice," which toured evangelical churches across the county under the name Arabic Christian Perspective. Speakers included David Hocking, a Tustin-based Christian-radio host who once told his audience that tolerance of Muslims in this country "is a plot"; Emmanuel Ali el-Shariff Abdallah, a former Muslim celebrated in evangelical circles for his acceptance of Christ; and Dr. Robert Morey, author of The Islamic Invasion: Confronting the World's Fastest-Growing Religion and a much-distributed 2002 essay that urged Christians to "launch a new Crusade against Islam" titled "Will Islam Cause WWIII?"

Phone calls and e-mails to the Arabic Christian Education Center weren't returned, but one longtime Islamic Society congregant told the Weekly that their fellow Muslims view the Christian-conversion efforts as an expected annoyance rather than a grave threat.

"Most people who attend services are so used to people telling us that what we believe in is wrong that we simply shrug it off," said the Islamic Society member, who requested anonymity. "There are some whispers about it during prayers when [the Christians] are there, but the general consensus is that if you ignore them, then they'll go away. Only a couple of the younger people get riled up about it, and they usually approach the Christians with a Koran so they could counter their arguments with verses."

That's the strategy favored by Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, religious director for the Islamic Society.

"Whenever Christians pass out fliers, they stand outside our property, so we have no right to tell them to leave," said Siddiqi. "We always tell parishioners to not get excited with what they do. Ignore them or invite them in so we can engage them in dialogue."

Siddiqi remembers one incident a couple of years ago when a Christian group stood outside the Islamic Center's shade-free gates and didn't leave despite the scorching summer sun.

"They kept standing outside in the heat, so we told them to come inside and talk," said Siddiqi. "We shared lunch and had a good discussion about our faiths, and they left. That's what we like to do. A lot of what was on their pamphlets were misinterpretations of passages from the Koran. We'd rather dialogue and clear up any mistrust than get excited.

"If they want to preach Christianity, fine," Siddiqi continued. "They have a good spirit, but they don't know how to do it. They shouldn't misinterpret other faiths while seeking converts. If you want to do the service of Christ, do so—but do it in the right manner."