What is it that leads people to change their religion? This question has long fascinated me. It is such an interesting historical question. Why, for example, did once Catholic England turn Protestant? Why did Scandinavia become Protestant, and do so far more completely than England? Why was it that Christianity survived in Egypt after the Arab invasions, but disappeared without trace in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia? These could be sociological questions; but at the same time they could be theological questions as well. Was it simply the strength of the opposition that wiped out Catholicism in these places? Or was Catholicism hollowed out from within, just awaiting overthrow?
If one wants to know about the mechanics of conversion, then perhaps the best way is to ask a convert. The Sandro Magister blog carries a report of the conversion story of Timo Aytaç Güzelmansur, a Turkish national, born in 1977, a native of the city of Antakya (formerly Antioch), and a former Alawite Muslim.
This is what Timo has to say about the reason for his conversion:
“After my encounter with some Christians, I began to read the Bible, in particular the New Testament. And I was immediately fascinated by the person of Jesus. This fascination, which still overwhelms me, and the surprise (because of the wonder) that Jesus loves me so much as to go up upon the cross and give his life for me, are the reasons why I became a Christian……. I converted to Christianity because of Christ! As I have already said, what still fascinates me is the love of Jesus for men. He loved us to the point of giving himself for us on the cross. If Jesus gives his life for me, how can I respond? For me this represents the fundamental question. And it seems logical to me to repay this love by following Christ and receiving baptism.”
This seems straightforward enough, though one would like to know who these Christians he encountered were, for they were the catalyst that led to his conversion. What did they say to him? How did they bring the subject up? What impression did they make on him personally? Turkey is a secular republic, as we all know, but, as parts of Timo’s interview make clear, conversion to Christianity does not go down well in some places. He himself had to leave home and suffered a period of coolness with his own father (who he describes as being not religious), and was rejected by some former friends.
He now lives in Germany and has this to say about conversions there:
“In the Catholic Church in Germany, about two hundred persons of Muslim origin are baptized each year. It is not known how many new Christians there are in Protestant circles who come from Islam, because there are no statistics.
“Persons who leave Islam have different reasons at the time they decide to take this step, which is dangerous. Some of them say: Muhammad was too violent a statesman and man of religion, and this violence is also transmitted in the Quran. Others perceive the Arab communities where Islam is the majority as very backward. Still others have left Islam because they came to live in the West, and here they want to integrate completely: according to them, one fundamental step is to accept the creed of the majority, or Christianity.
“But above all there are Muslim persons of profound religious sensibility who are seeking God, who for this reason find in Christianity a God who loves them and offers them peace and acceptance. Thanks to the encounter with Christ they discover an image of God that obviously they cannot find with Islam.”
Here we see that conversions happen for mixed reasons – some sociological, and some theological. The key phrase for me, and the one that should challenge all Catholics, is in the words ‘image of God’. What image of God are we projecting? If it is the true one, then we shall have converts beating a path to our doors; but if the image of God is warped by our own failures and sins, then converts will be few. We need to proclaim Christ in all his splendour, and, as St Paul would remind us, Christ crucified. ‘If Jesus gives his life for me, how can I respond?’ as Timo rightly says. And next to Christ crucified, the icon of Divine Love, we need to point to the icon of the perfect human response, Mary our Mother.