In uphill effort, Muslims seek Israeli converts

September 28, 2011 - 1:30 PM

JERUSALEM (AP) — In an unprecedented endeavor, a few Muslim believers are crossing the Holy Land's volatile boundaries of culture, faith and politics to bring Islam to Israel's Jews — hoping, improbably, that some will be willing to renounce their religion for a new one.

The bearded men approach Jews in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and try, in polite and fluent Hebrew, to convert them.

"I must tell you about the true faith," said one missionary in a cobblestone plaza outside Jerusalem's Old City. He carried a knapsack full of pamphlets about Islam in several languages, including Hebrew. "You can do with it what you want. But telling you is our duty."

Most people, he said, brush him off and keep walking.

A computer programmer educated at an Israeli college, he sported a scraggly beard, loose pants and a long shirt typical of the purist Muslims known as Salafis. He gave his name only as Abu Hassan.

There are no signs the endeavor has met with any success. Only about a dozen Muslims are involved. Most of the handful of Jews who convert do so to marry Muslim men, rather than from proselytizing. Still, the act of spreading Islam in Hebrew is profound, reflecting a striking confidence on the part of some Muslims, members of Israel's Arab minority.

It also reflects the influence of conservative Islamic trends that emphasize spreading the religion, transmitted through web forums and satellite channels from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Abu Hassan said that in years of conflict with Israel, Muslims, embattled and angry, neglected their responsibility to preach their faith to nonbelievers, including Jews.

"Muslims did not want to talk, and Jews did not want to listen. But Jews also need to hear the truth," he said.

Yitzhak Reiter, a professor at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, said he had not seen anything similar in 30 years of studying local Islam. "This is the first time that someone has tried to convert Jews to Islam in the state of Israel," he said.

The efforts seem to have attracted no public notice so far. But the missionaries are treading on a potentially explosive taboo. Centuries of persecution and aggressive conversion attempts by Christian and Muslim majorities have made Jews, numbering 13 million people worldwide, deeply hostile to proselytizing. Israeli law places some restrictions on missionary activity, forbidding targeting minors or offering financial incentives, but does not outlaw it altogether.

The Holy Land's Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities all hold strong religious, tribal and ethnic bonds and deeply resist conversion. The result is a sort of loose understanding not to push the boundaries.

Azzam Khatib, a top Muslim official in Jerusalem, said the efforts to proselytize in Hebrew were not mainstream, but acceptable: "Whoever wants to join, they are welcome — but without any pressure."

Four years ago, Abu Hassan said, an Israeli Jew approached him with questions about Islam. At the time, he was distributing Islamic material to foreign tourists around the Old City.

Abu Hassan realized there was almost no missionary Muslim literature in Hebrew, so he and a few associates put together a Hebrew booklet. Since then, he said, they have distributed several thousand copies, he said.

Titled "The Path to Happiness," the booklet invites the reader to "think, and take advantage of this invaluable opportunity in which we are trying to take your hand and lead you to the eternal light."

The missionaries are wary of revealing personal details, fearing harassment. Somebody has already hacked Abu Hassan's cell phone, changing his voice mail message to a string of Hebrew curses against him and Muhammad, the Muslim prophet.

Most of those Abu Hassan engages ignore him, he said. Many are derisive, some verbally abusive. At one point Israeli intelligence agents questioned him about his funding, he said. He told them it came from donations in mosques.

"People curse me. But I do my job, and this is my job as a Muslim. I must explain gently, and in a nice way, about Allah," he said.

He dodged questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying only that historically the "best times" for Jews came under Islamic rule and suggesting peace would come if Jews accepted Islam.

Abu Hassan and his companions are informally linked to a small, three-year-old organization known as the Mercy Committee for New Muslims, founded by Emad Younis, a charismatic, blue-eyed preacher from the north Israel town of Ara.

Younis said the committee is not primarily aimed at winning converts. It helps those who do convert adapt to life as Muslims and seeks to explain a moderate version of Islam to non-Muslims, particularly Israeli Jews, by distributing promotional material.

The number of converts remains tiny.

Israel's Justice Ministry, which registers converts, could not say how many Jews become Muslims. It said 400 and 500 of Israel's nearly 8 million people change their faith every year — many of them Christians joining different Christian sects. Reiter, the professor, said his research suggested about 20 converts a year to Islam, almost all women marrying Muslim men.

Younis of the Mercy Committee said most new converts were indeed women married to Muslims, and the majority were originally from the former Soviet Union, part of the 1990s wave of Eastern European immigration to Israel. The newcomers are less susceptible to taboos against intermarriage and conversion.

At a recent gathering for new Muslims, 55 converts came with their families — five of them native-born Israeli Jews, all of them women, Younis said.

One woman, a 20-year-old, converted in June to marry her Muslim husband.

"The Muslims greeted me with love I never got from my parents, and the women here say, 'You're one of us now,'" she said, giving only her new Arabic first name, Yasmin.

Yasmin lives in the Arab town of Taibeh in central Israel, a short drive from the traditional Jewish home in which she grew up. But she can't go back since her family, too, has disowned her.

"I have nothing now but my husband and Islam," she said.