During the 2013 terror attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, al Shabaab gunmen paused for a moment and made an announcement in Swahili: All Muslims could come forward and leave.
Among those trying to escape was Joshua Hakim, who covered up the Christian name on his ID as he showed it to the gunmen.
“They told me to go,” Hakim later told The Guardian. “Then an Indian man came forward, and they said, ‘What is the name of Muhammad’s mother?’ When he couldn’t answer, they just shot him.”
Other terror attacks by al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda, have followed a similar pattern. Those who could prove they were Muslim—by reciting a prayer in Arabic or answering questions about Islam—were allowed to go free. Those who couldn’t were killed.
As a result, some Kenyans have begun to share tips online about how to pretend to be Muslim, just in case. This includes learning to recite the shahada—Islam’s main creed—in Arabic.
This pragmatic response to terror attacks is understandable. But is it biblically sound? Kenyan Christian leaders are divided on the issue.
No, says David Oginde, head of Christ is the Answer Ministries, one of Kenya’s largest parachurch organizations with 45,000 members. “A true Christian must be ready to live and to die for the faith,” he said.
But two professors at St. Paul’s University, a conservative Anglican institution in Nairobi, say the answer isn’t that clear-cut. Reciting the shahada doesn’t amount to denying Christ, says Samuel Githinji, a theology lecturer.
“Christians are obligated to save their lives and others’ lives as much as possible,” Githinji said. “Denying the faith is more subtle than the mere voicing of certain words.”
Joseph Wandera, coordinator of St. Paul’s Centre for Christian–Muslim Relations, gives a biblical rationale for misleading an attacker: God tells a fearful Samuel to mislead Saul in order to anoint David as king, and Jesus gives false impressions in John 7:1–13, going secretly to a feast.
“The question deserves prayer,” Wandera says. “Christians must ponder whether God is calling them to martyrdom or safety.”
Christians in other countries have faced similar dilemmas. When ISIS insurgents burst into his apartment in Libya, Osama Mansour, a Coptic Christian, fled. A Muslim friend helped him to grow a proper beard, carry a prayer rug, and cover the Coptic tattoo on his wrist with a fake cast. Mansour, nervous at every checkpoint, eventually made it back home to Egypt.
Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary, says Mansour’s actions were ethical, since he did not claim to be a Muslim or deny being a Christian. “It is okay to pretend to be a Muslim,” he said, “but not to lie and say so.”
George Sabra, president of Near East School of Theology in Lebanon, says Christians must rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such situations. Sabra believes that Christians should not say the shahada. But those who do, he says, should be treated with compassion.
“To be a Christian is not about learning tactics for survival,” he said. “But denying Christ is not an unforgivable sin. We may not despair of God’s love and mercy. Even Peter, the head of the disciples, was a denier of Christ.”
Hani Hanna, professor of theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo, also counsels forgiveness for those who pretend to be Muslim in order to save their lives. “If anyone denies the Christian faith in situations like this and survives,” he said, “they must be embraced in love by the Christian community.”
Early-church members faced a similar dilemma under Emperor Decius, who ordered all Romans to offer a pinch of incense at altars set up in his honor. In many cases, Christians at the time did not have to deny Christ, but could offer the sacrifice “on behalf” of Caesar.
That practice was rejected, says William Black, senior lecturer in history and theology at St. Paul’s. “The idea of pretending to be a Muslim seems to be a dodge on the line of those throwing a pinch of incense on the emperor’s altar,” he said. “The act in and of itself is trivial, but it is made monstrous in light of the suffering of the confessors and martyrs.”
Some of those who refused to offer incense were tortured, while Pope Fabian and a number of prominent Christians were put to death. But Cyprian, the influential bishop of Carthage, went into hiding while other church leaders counseled that offering the sacrifice was allowed. Ancient Carthage is now Tunisia, on the border with Libya, where martyrdom is again a reality.
Hanna says that Christians who deny their faith in the face of potential martyrdom would be ostracized by other believers. Their actions would be seen as a lifelong cause of shame.
“The choice ISIS presents is not one of life or death. It is of death or another type of death,” he said. “The shame will stick with you until the end of your life, affecting also your family and children.”
Amgad Mikhail, an accountant in Cairo, agrees. As a Coptic Christian, he believes there can be restoration after repentance.But he has no patience for pretending.
“Jesus said, ‘If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father in heaven,’ ” he said. “Look at all those in Syria and Iraq who have lost everything. Yes, life is more important than your possessions, so flee if you can. But Jesus is more important than life.”
Theologians like Black say that martyrs can serve as Christian witnesses for centuries. He points to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was captured by Roman soldiers in A.D. 156. The soldiers offered to release him if Polycarp denied his faith. “Eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong,” Polycarp replied. “How then can I blaspheme my king and Savior?”
Just as Polycarp’s faithfulness has inspired Christians ever since, so may be the case for Christians killed by ISIS whose testimony has been shared internationally.
“The media of the ancient world were just as powerful as our own media are today,” said Black. Many persecutions of old backfired, bringing more into the Christian fold.
Ajaj is hopeful that martyrdoms today will have a similar effect. “I hope they give a good testimony and glory to God’s name,” he said.
Of course, nothing is certain. Martyrdom may not change a hardhearted terrorist, and pretending to be a Muslim may not save a Christian’s life.
But just in case: Muhammad’s mother was Aminah bint Wahb.
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