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ICC Note: The pressure to convert to Islam for Mr. Centanni and Wiig is just a taste of what millions of Christians suffer day to day in Muslim countries around the world.

A Chance of Faith

Religious conversions are unusual in most of the world.
Friday, September 1, 2006
For the full story, go to the Wall Street Journal

One of the prices paid for the release of Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig from their captivity at the hands of Palestinian terrorists last week–aside from a six-figure cash delivery reportedly slipped under the table to the group who kidnapped them–was a video of both men supposedly announcing their conversion to Islam.

The scene on the tape was distasteful in the extreme, with the two reporters announcing their name change–Mr. Centanni became “Khaled” and Mr. Wiig became “Yaaqob”–and reading an obligatory denunciation of U.S. policy in the region. A tag-line on the screen said the conversion to Islam had been “without pressure.” Mr. Centanni shot this assertion down almost instantly. “We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint,” he told Fox News within minutes of his release.

The notion of forced conversions is extremely distasteful to Americans, though Islamic history is replete with instances of entire communities conquered by Muslims being coerced to convert, either forced to pay a special tax, or face execution. The Quran itself (Sura 2:256) says “there shall be no compulsion in religion,” but in many Islamic societies the murder of someone who leaves Islam for another faith, and thus becomes an “apostate,” is not a crime.

In the Hindu and Islamic worlds, the conscious choice by someone of a new religious conviction is very serious business. There are family pressures to overcome, community prejudices and, often enough, threats of violence if a conversion is actually made. Even in India , where there is a strong legal tradition since British times of religious freedom, advocates of Hindutva (“Hinduness”) do everything possible to prevent people defecting from Hinduism to join other faiths. In much of the Islamic world it is technically a capital offense under Sharia, or Muslim religious law, to change one’s faith. But even if it weren’t, the prevailing response to a suggestion to alter one’s religion would be: “Why would I want to?”

For Americans, on the other hand, variety of choice in any domain of life is seen as an inherent virtue, the greater it is, the greater the virtue. Americans like to experiment, to “mix and match,” and in religion it’s no different than in the department store. A friend who attended Yale divinity school a few years ago had a classmate who signed herself in as a “Catholic Buddhist.”

That eclecticism was not offered to Messrs. Centanni or Wiig when they faced a choice between death and conversion at the end of a gun barrel. In Islam, the supermarket of religious choice hasn’t opened yet.
Mr. Aikman, a former senior correspondent with Time, is a writer in residence at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.