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The Stealth Crusade

A Columbia, SC university gives its students a goal: to wipe out Islam


At 8 o'clock on a warm Monday morning in January, 20 students file into Rick Love's classroom at Columbia International University in Columbia, SC. Eyes glassy from writing papers all weekend, they clutch Styrofoam cups of coffee as they settle into their seats. In front, an overhead projector hums; it is hooked up to the instructor's laptop, ready for a morning full of PowerPoint presentations.Outside, CIU's piney campus is quiet. Most of the student body has not yet returned from Christmas break. But these students, all evangelical Christians, have arrived two weeks early for an intensive course on how to win converts in Islamic countries. They're learning from the master: Love is the international director of Frontiers, the largest Christian group in the world that focuses exclusively on proselytizing to Muslims. With 800 missionaries in 50 countries, Frontiers' reach extends from the South Pacific to North Africa, with every major Islamic region in between.

Love is 49, a black-leather-jacket-wearing whirlwind of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a quick sense of humor. He's a chronic multi-tasker, routinely praying aloud while drinking coffee and simultaneously reviewing his lecture notes. Little known outside the missionary world, he's an icon within it -- an evangelistic entrepreneur who wins admirers with what he calls his "middle linebacker" personality. His seminars are usually closed to the media and the public.

This morning's lesson is about going undercover. Many of Love's students are missionaries themselves, temporarily home from assignments in places ranging from Kazakhstan to Kenya. They know firsthand that evangelism is illegal in many Islamic nations, and they face expulsion if their true intentions become known. Love's lesson for today is how to mask one's identity while secretly working to convert Muslims.

Evangelists, he explains, should always have a ready, nonreligious explanation for their presence in hostile areas. Love fixes his gaze on a studious, spiky-haired missionary dressed in Patagonia clothing.

"If people ask you, "Why are you here?'" he asks, "what do you say?" The young man, on leave from Southeast Asia, squirms in his chair. His jaw opens but nothing comes out.

"Bingo!" Love says with a smile. "You bite your fingernails, and people go, "Of course he's not hiding anything.'" Love notes that before he went to western Indonesia to proselytize among Sundanese Muslims, he went back to school and earned his credentials to become an English instructor. That way, he says, he had an excuse to be in the country.

"I could look someone in the eye and say, "I am an English teacher,'" he explains. ""I have a degree and I'm here to teach.'"

That, he says, is the model for winning converts in the Islamic world: Find another pretext to be in the country. Build friendships with the locals. Once you've developed trust, then it's time to try to gain new believers. But don't reveal your true purpose too early.

"How did Jesus explain why he was there?" Love asks the class.

"Indirectly," volunteers a veteran missionary. "He'd say, "Why do you think I'm here?'"

"Did Jesus ever lie?" In unison, the class says, "No."

"But did Jesus ever say, "I have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?'"

Again, 20 voices call out, "No!"

There are lots of ways to camouflage yourself, Love tells the students. In Indonesia, evangelists ran a quilt-making business to provide cover for Western missionaries, allowing them to employ -- and proselytize -- scores of Muslims.

The students nod thoughtfully; they agree that Muslims must be reached by whatever means possible. Their zeal is helping to fuel the biggest evangelical foray into the Muslim world since missionary pioneer Samuel Zwemer declared Islam a "dying religion" in 1916 and predicted that "when the crescent wanes, the Cross will prove dominant." Over the past decade, evangelical leaders say, the number of missionaries trying to convert Muslims has jumped fourfold, from several hundred in the early 1990s to more than 3,000 today. Many are sent by the Southern Baptist Convention, with the rest coming from a network of church-supported groups with names like Christar and Arab World Ministries.

Missionaries work in remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan; former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; Middle Eastern hot spots like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; and African countries like Somalia and Algeria.

"We see Islam as the final frontier," says David Cashin, a professor of Intercultural Studies at CIU who used to don Muslim clothing and pursue converts in the tea shops of Kaliakoir, Bangladesh. Like many of his fellow evangelicals, Cashin regards the Islamic world as a hinterland that must be penetrated before the Messiah can return.

"History is coming to an end," he says. "If you believe Christ is coming back, why has he delayed 2,000 years? We haven't finished the task he set out to do." That task, he says, is to win converts among all the world's ethnic groups.

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