When Muslims begin the holy month of Ramadan this weekend, Christians worldwide will be praying along with them. But Muslims may not welcome the support. In a campaign called the "30 Days Muslim Prayer Focus," Christians will be asking God to help Muslims accept Jesus.
The project is organized by a loose association of evangelical groups that include Youth With A Mission, which works in about 150 countries. In the U.S., the National Association of Evangelicals is asking the thousands of churches and ministries it represents to participate.
Lynn Green, international chairman of Youth With A Mission, said organizers chose Ramadan because it is a time when Muslims pray for God's acceptance and guidance and "we add our prayers to theirs," Green said. "We are praying they really know God."
Many Muslims and others consider campaigns like these offensive in both their timing and goals, especially in light of religious tensions over the global fight against terror. Pope Benedict XVI is still trying to quell the violence that followed his recent speech citing a Byzantine emperor who called some Islamic teachings "evil and inhuman."
Yet, Christians say they are only doing what Muslims do.
Like Christianity, Islam is a missionary faith, teaching that Muslims are following the true path and directing them to introduce others to their beliefs. Christians say that instead of trying to silence each other, both faiths should find a way to live together peacefully despite their competing religious mandates.
"We believe on both sides from our Scriptures that we have a message for all humankind, so that witnessing by word and deed needs to be part of both of our ways of living and acting and conversing with others," said Dudley Woodberry, a leading Christian scholar of Islam and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif.
"However, we are both told to do this in a gracious way," Woodberry said.
On their Web site, the evangelical organizers write in boldface that "it is not our intention with this prayer focus to disparage Islam." Instead, they say, as Christians, they want all people to have a chance to "understand and consider the grace of God incarnated in Jesus Christ."
The National Association of Evangelicals wrote in its Web posting that "Christians must resist the temptation to be caught up in generalizations, anger, hate or fear toward all Muslims," and should instead learn about and pray for them through the campaign.
A prayer booklet is used to explain Muslim teachings and Muslim groups worldwide. Each day, participants learn about an Islamic community — Kazakhstan, Libya, Geneva — then pray for the Muslims and Christians there.
"This is a very constructive tool, instead of hating or fearing or being angry," said Paul Filidis, director of the campaign. "It's hard to hate people you pray for."
Yet, for many Muslims, no amount of sensitivity can excuse what they see as a challenge to their religion during one of its most sacred periods.
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, said he believes that true followers of Jesus would not pray for conversion, but would instead demonstrate their faith through good works.
"Mother Teresa did not go out to pray for people to convert to Christianity," said Hendi, who reads part of the Gospels daily. "She took care of the poor and that's what made people love Christianity.
But Jamal Badawi, an Islamic scholar and professor emeritus at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said he cannot deny Christians the right to pray for him, since he also prays that they embrace Islam.
"I know that in many cases people really have that sincere desire in their hearts to pray for other people who cannot see the truth the way they see it," Badawi said. "It doesn't offend me that someone looks upon it that way."
The prayer campaign began 15 years ago, as Christians were focusing more mission resources on Islamic nations. Organizers have not done much advertising, partly out of concern about Muslim reaction.
Within the United States, the campaign still has a very low profile among the millions of evangelicals. After the Sept. 11 attacks, North American orders for the prayer book jumped from the usual 25,000 to more than 80,000, then soon decreased, Filidis said.
But in the past couple of years, interest has grown again, with about 70,000 prayer booklets expected to be shipped this year, he said. There are no worldwide figures on participation, but the prayer book is being distributed in local languages in more than 30 countries.
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