The sign in front of the Church of the Nazarene in Sunnyvale, promoting a sermon by today’s guest speaker, is raising a few eyebrows.
“Why I am not a Muslim,” reads the electric signboard in front of the church at 975 Fremont Ave. But church officials and the speaker say the message is not intended to inflame.
Guest speaker Donald Fareed said the sermon he will deliver is intended to explain to Nazarene church members how he arrived at his decision to convert to Christianity. The sermon is not, he said, a spiritual attack on Islam. In fact, far from it.
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But the sign surprised Jay Keller and his wife, who have lived around the corner from the church for the past 12 years.
“I thought that is an offensive sign per se,” Jay said. “I work with a lot of Muslims and don’t know why someone would put up a sign like that. They can’t possibly be oblivious to the fact that it might be offensive to some people.”
Terry Irish, pastor at the church, explained Friday that the wording on the signboard was merely taken from the title of one of several topics in a brochure Fareed sent him in early October. Explaining the topic further was impossible in the available space, Irish said.
“It is not intended to be either insensitive or inflammatory,” he said. “My intent is never to offend. My intent is always to inform.”
Fareed, the pastor and founder of a San Jose organization called Persian Ministries, said his overall Christian ministry is about promoting peace and understanding. He wants to help Christians and Muslims bridge a gap that has perhaps intensified since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed.
Unlike other Muslim-Christian converts, Fareed said, he is not merely expressing spiritual ideas but also democratic ideals of the West.
“My goal is not to offend Muslims, but to communicate why I changed my religion,” he said. “It was mostly spiritual reasons that led to my conversion.”
Fareed is an Iranian Muslim by birth who fled his homeland following the Islamist revolution that continues to dominate the Tehran government today. Rebelling against the harshness of Islam’s holy laws as interpreted by leaders there, he moved to the United States and, about 14 years ago, converted to evangelical Christianity after a spiritual journey in which he first dabbled in Sufism and Scientology.
Fareed said he converted because Christianity allowed him to have “a personal relationship with God through Christ,” whereas Islam, he said, does not. In his mind, a personal relationship with God allows a person to seek his help on the path to salvation, whereas Islam demands its adherents to stick to rigid laws with no feedback from God.
Fareed hosts a weekly TV show in the Bay Area. More than two years ago, he said, he vastly expanded his reach by broadcasting globally by satellite in Farsi.
He believes he now reaches about 30 million people each week. He said large numbers of Iranians and other Muslims with whom he has talked have begun to open up to other religious options in the face of harsh Islamist governments.
Sunnyvale resident Waheed Siddiqee said he was “disappointed” at the tone of the sign in front of the Nazarene church, a few blocks from his home, because it comes off as a challenge to his Muslim faith.
However, he said, “It’s a free country and he’s free to speak his mind. There is nothing we can do about it.”
Siddiqee said he questions how much headway Christianity is making in terms of winning converts from countries run by Islamist governments. “I imagine there is a certain percentage of more moderate Muslims who might be unhappy about some of the rules and regulations that are being implemented, and might be turned off. But I think most Muslims are very comfortable with their faith.”