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Joseph Fadelle was born in Iraq in the 1960s. During his mandatory service in the Iraqi army, he was assigned a Christian roommate. Initially distraught to be rooming with an infidel, he came to understand that God had given him the mission of converting this man to Islam. In challenging the man’s Christian faith, Fadelle came first to doubt Islam, then to embrace Christianity. It was only the beginning of his trials.

Scion of a prominent Muslim family, he was turned away by all the churches he approached in Baghdad seeking reception into the faith. He resorted to practicing Christianity in secret, until his parents discovered his conversion. They informed an ayatollah, who ­issued a fatwa calling for his death. His father had him imprisoned. ­Released after eighteen months, Fadelle fled to Jordan. Family members tracked him down there and tried to kill him. In Jordan, he was baptized into the Catholic Church and given a visa to France, where he lives today.

Fadelle’s story of persistence despite resistance from Christian as well as Islamic authorities is far from anomalous. In Christian Martyrs Under Islam, Christian Sahner writes of Muslim conversions to Christianity in the early Islamic era: “[C]lergy seem to have played a surprisingly peripheral role . . . On balance, the initial impetus for many apostates seems to have come from without the institutional church, not from within it.” In the ensuing millennium, little has changed. My experience as a layman working and studying in the Middle East for a decade suggests that conversions to Christianity in that region still happen largely through the initiative of those desiring conversion, not through ­evangelization—­despite the institutional church, not because of it. Indeed, the process of converting from Islam often involves repeated failures to find a priest willing to guide the catechumen and supervise rites of initiation.

It is impossible to know how many Muslims are converting to the various churches in the Islamic world, primarily because of the sensitivity of the subject and the official position of many churches that they will not actively seek the conversion of Muslims. In Islamic law, it is illegal for Muslims to leave their faith, and most Arab governments enforce this rule to varying degrees, ranging from the refusal to register a change in religion to active persecution of those who seek to convert. In countries like Iraq, where the rule of law has largely broken down, such norms are enforced by actors outside the state, such as family members or militias. Nonetheless, conversions do occur.

I have observed that conversions to Catholicism seem more common than conversions to Orthodoxy. A representative of the Greek Orthodox Church in Damascus told Raseef22, an Arabic-language publication, in January 2021 that the patriarchate does not accept converts from Islam, since “the sacrament of confirmation is a sacred mystery that cannot be given to someone not born Christian, in addition to the fact that to do so would be in contravention of Syrian law.” That’s the safe answer to give to a media publication, to be sure. But the outlet was also able to interview Catholic priests who spoke about their church’s secretive process of bringing in converts. An unnamed representative of the Greek Catholic patriarchate in Damascus said that they baptize between twenty and thirty converts from Islam annually. The difference between these reports coincides with what I’ve seen during nearly a decade in the region, namely that Catholicism receives more converts than does Orthodoxy. (By contrast with both, evangelical Protestant ­churches have actively embraced a mission of evangelization. In spite of difficulties and restrictions, they readily welcome converts, both from Islam and from the ancient Catholic and Orthodox communities of the ­Arabic-speaking world.)

Lebanon remains the major exception to the rule regarding the difficulties of conversion. Conversion is not without stigma or difficulty in Lebanon, but it is legally permissible, and the balance of power between Islam and Christianity is closer to equal there than elsewhere in the region. Lebanon has a longer history of secular attitudes than do other Middle Eastern countries, and marriages between Muslims and Christians are more common there.

Two prominent Catholic priests in Lebanon, Majdi Allawi and ­Charbel Khayr Eddin, are converts from Islam—the former from Sunni Islam and the latter from Shiism. Both regularly appear on mainstream Lebanese television to discuss their conversions. In 2012, Malek Maktabi, a prominent Lebanese television host and a Shiite Muslim married to a Greek Orthodox political figure, hosted an hour-long talk-show episode about those who had changed their religions. He hosted three Christians who were former Muslims (including Fr. Charbel), and three Muslims who were former Christians. The discussion was occasionally heated and at times felt like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, but its very existence says something about how differently the issue of conversion is treated in Lebanon than in the rest of the Arab world. The one point of agreement among the panelists concerned the need for the freedom to choose one’s religion. In Lebanon there remains a stigma surrounding conversion to ­Christianity, but no absolute taboo.

In the Middle East, religious identity is understood to be a social distinction as much as a matter of personal conviction. You often hear that God chose the religion you were born into, and that’s that. Most writers of Christian background are described as “Christian” regardless of their topic of writing or personal religious views, much as in the West an atheist writer may be considered “Jewish.” In northern Syria and Iraq, you can often tell a person’s religion by his mother tongue. Growing up, we sang in church that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love”; in the old market of a town like ­Qamishli, Syria, you’ll know they are Christians because they speak Syriac or Armenian rather than Arabic or Kurdish. Leaving one’s religion is considered an abandonment of one’s family and a source of shame.

It was not ever thus, and it won’t be thus forever. Among Kurds in particular, in both Syria and Iraq, interest in Christianity is on the rise. American Protestant missionaries are easy to find in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I once sat in a coffee shop in Erbil listening as an American pastor and an Iraqi convert discussed their strategy for winning converts. The American felt that his Arabic was almost good enough that he could start handing out Bibles on the street.

Recently, a taxi driver in Erbil asked me whether I was Muslim or Christian. When I answered that I was a Christian, he revealed that he had converted to Christianity from Islam because in the gospel he found a message that fulfilled our humanity. In Erbil, I occasionally attend a Chaldean Catholic church that sits next to an evangelical church. As I walked in one Sunday, the helpful doorman, taking me for an evangelical missionary, told me that the Protestant church was next door. I assured him I was in the right place, despite being the only non-Iraqi at Mass.

In the Kurdish area of northern Syria, I once sat in a café with a young man who asked me loudly about converting. He was being pushed to convert by his brother, who had migrated to Germany and apparently become a fervent Christian there. The young man had approached a priest in Syria to ask about converting, and the priest had accused him of wanting to marry a Christian woman. When I asked whether he had read the Gospels, he asked what those were. He had not heard of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. I suggested he start there and try the priest again later. A Kurdish official I frequently deal with in northern Syria asked me the first time we met whether ISIS was the true face of Islam. I demurred, and she said (while wearing a hijab) that she wanted to know because she would not stay in a religion that advocated violence. By the next time we met, she had changed her WhatsApp photo to an icon of Jesus, and she hinted that she had converted informally (though the hijab remained).

I could give more anecdotes of people approaching me, looking either to convert or to tell me about their conversions. I’ve never sought these stories out, and their frequency has often surprised me. It might be impossible to pinpoint exactly what underlies any story of conversion. When we focus on stories of conversion to our faith, we are inclined to see the workings of providence. When we hear stories of conversion in the other direction, we often suspect psychological or social problems. Though a whole host of factors—social, economic, psychological—are surely at work, we would be untrue to ourselves as Catholics if we discounted the possibility that God is looking out for the Church by leading Muslims to it. We Western Christians may have been robbed of the possibility of naive faith in our skeptical, secular age, but not everyone has.

And yet it is easy to see the worldly benefit for some converts. Refugee converts in Europe have faced suspicions that their conversions are an attempt to claim vulnerability as apostates should they be sent back to the Muslim world. Emad Al Swealmeen was an Iraqi-born asylum seeker in the UK. He converted to Christianity while in the UK, and blew himself up in a Liverpool taxi on November 14, 2021—presumably on his way to carry out a more significant terrorist attack elsewhere in the city. The case brought increased scrutiny to the phenomenon of asylum seekers who convert.

A Christian in Iraq told me that several Kurds have approached him about becoming Christian and he has refused to help them, predicting that they will revert to Islam once it’s in their interest. It is impossible to deny that self-interest motivates some, just as conversion to Islam appealed to many Christians in the early Islamic era for social, political, and economic reasons. Even in modernity, there have been times—the Armenian genocide, the rise of ISIS—when converting to Islam could save one’s life. Recently I interviewed a Christian family in a Syrian city that had been under ISIS control. I was accompanied by two other Christians. A man was sitting in the shop listening to our interview. As we left, one of my companions said to the other in a disdainful tone: “That’s their relative, right? The one who converted to Islam under ISIS.”

Extremist violence and intolerant attitudes have pushed many Middle Easterners away from Islam, but not always away from God. One of the women on Malek Maktabi’s program in Lebanon had been attracted to the Maronite Catholic Church because of its conviction of the sanctity of marriage; her Muslim parents had constantly separated and gotten back together, and the prohibition on divorce drew her to the Church. (In Lebanon, as in many Muslim-­majority countries, religious authorities are responsible for issues such as marriage and divorce. The Catholic Church in Lebanon regulates marriage for Lebanese Catholics, who are therefore legally forbidden to divorce, and a common phrase used to seal an agreement in Lebanon is that it is a “Maronite marriage,” that is, irreversible.)

Many converts report being drawn to the Church by dreams of Jesus or the Blessed Mother. Joseph Fadelle says that he dreamt of the phrase “Bread of Life” before he had ever read the Bible. He had never heard the phrase before, so when he encountered it in the Gospel, he believed that Jesus had spoken to him through his dream. Premodern Christians would have found the idea of conversion through dream perfectly natural; we moderns tend to be skeptical.

I recently learned that a man I knew during grad school, a European of Muslim background, had joined the Catholic Church. The news was not really a surprise, as this man had always seemed most comfortable around serious Catholics. But I realized that during our lengthy conversations about many intellectual topics, he and I had never discussed the Catholic faith. I had played no role in his conversion, and the thought caused me a moment’s anguish. Then I realized that it was a silly thing to feel bad about. He had found his way to Rome.

To think that I could speak better than the Church herself, with her history and tradition and majesty—and most importantly her truth—was preposterous. This man’s conversion comports with a rule that holds in many areas of life: He who feels the need to speak about himself, loudly and often, is probably compensating for something. Perhaps the quiet confidence of the the Catholic Church is what draws us to her. The Church does not need the loudest voice, because her very existence speaks.

Sam Sweeney is president of the Mesopotamia Relief Foundation.

Image by David Eavers via Creative Commons. Image cropped.