COTONOU, Benin (BP)–Muslims who accept Jesus as Savior often face intense pressure from the Muslim community. Families disown them. Friends shun them. Employers fire them. Militants often abuse them. And often traditional Christian churches are slow to accept them.
Too often they abandon their commitment to Christ and return to the mosque.
Generations of missionaries have struggled with the challenge. How can you help the new believer survive the pressure long enough to train him in the Christian life? How can he keep his ties to the Muslim community intact so he can share his new faith with friends and family?
Alejandro and Bertha Ortiz believe they have a solution.
The Mexican couple are Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionaries in Benin, a small West African country next to Nigeria on the Gulf of Guinea. The handful of Muslims they led to Christ in Cotonou, the capital city, represents a major breakthrough into that country’s small Muslim community.
And the mosque they started for these Muslim believers might answer the questions others have struggled with for years.
When several Muslims accepted Christ — some through the Ortizes’ ministry in Cotonou’s civil prison — the couple began to pray about how to help them develop their faith and reach their friends and families with the gospel.
The Ortizes understood why new Christians from Muslim backgrounds felt out of place in the Western-style churches of Cotonou. They knew the close-knit Muslim community would quickly disown anyone who identified with Christian churches.
“I was looking out the window one day and saw the roof of a mosque, and the Lord just spoke to me,” said Bertha. “If Muslims can face Mecca and pray five times a day, why can’t these new Christians pray five times a day, but facing Jerusalem and remembering Jesus Christ?”
The couple talked to several of the new Christians and together they fleshed out the idea of a mosque where they could worship God, but in the familiar patterns of Muslim worship.
Their first worship service was held in early February on the second floor of a nondescript concrete building. Seven men, a woman and a child left their shoes at the door and sat on reed mats in the center of the room. One stood to read from the French-language Bible, then the whole group kneeled and bowed low to the ground. In a sing-song chant, they prayed passages from the Psalms in Arabic. Alejandro closed with a prayer in the name of Isa, the Arabic name for Jesus.
The worshipers were visibly moved by the experience.
“Islam is more a way of life than a religion,” said one of the new Christians. “Our traditions are like a snail shell. If you find a snail outside its shell, it’s dead. This is a way to change people without changing the tradition.”
Indeed, Muslim culture, with its respect for family and community and right living, doesn’t separate religion from the rest of life, said Lewis Myers, the Foreign Mission Board vice president who helps design strategies to reach “Last Frontier” ethnic groups with little or no access to the gospel.
“All of life is one seamless garment in Islam,” Myers said. “Pouring Christian content into Muslim prayer and worship patterns is like the early Christians, who took a pagan festival and poured the Easter content into it.”
The Ortizes hope this mosque will buy time for their new believers to grow as Christians without losing relationships in the Muslim community. They also pray members will be able to bring their friends and families to the mosque, where they can hear the gospel in a familiar, nonthreatening setting.
In the weeks after their first meeting, God appeared to be answering those prayers.
The new believers remained enthusiastic about their faith. The new Christians were sharing their faith with other Muslims. And one more person had accepted Christ.
“God is moving in a powerful way in Benin,” Alejandro said. “Doors are open and people are responsive. We believe we must take advantage of those opportunities now, because we don’t know how long they will be here.”