NEW YORK — Even as the nation is focused on terrorism undertaken by radical Islamic militants, it is important to keep up a dialogue between Catholics and Muslims and to offer adherents of the Islamic faith a chance to know Christ, several apologists say.

Those in the business of explaining and defending the Catholic faith say the events of Sept. 11 have made them think more seriously about reaching out to Muslims.

“There is a great need for the Church to have some response to Islam,” said Patrick Madrid, founder and editor of Envoy magazine.

Added Karl Keating, president of Catholic Answers in El Cajon, Calif., “It's an area where we realize we should have been doing something. It's something we plan to get into more.”

One Muslim-turned-Catholic is planning to enlarge the scope of his dialogue with Muslims, particularly by expanding an Internet presence.

Indeed, Pope John Paul II recently renewed a call for dialogue and mutual tolerance among religious groups in every country. Though his remarks were published just a month after the terrorist attacks on America, in his Message for the 88th World Day of Migration 2002, there was no specific reference to the tensions between the native-born, largely Christian majority in the U.S. and its Muslim minority, which is largely an immigrant population.

“Dialogue is not always easy,” the Pope wrote. “For Christians, however, the patient and confident pursuit of it is a commitment to be constantly carried out.”

He warned Christians not to be religiously indifferent but urged them to “bear clear witness to the hope that is within us.

“Dialogue must not hide, but exalt, the gift of faith,” he wrote. “On the other hand, how can we keep such richness only for ourselves? How can we fail to offer the greatest treasure that we possess to migrants and foreigners who profess various religions and whom Providence places along our path, and do it with a greater attention for the others’ sensitivity? To accomplish this mission it is necessary to let the Holy Spirit guide us.”

Islam has been growing in numbers and influence in the United States, a fact which some say helped the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon operate here under the radar. There are thought to be some 6 million Muslims in the country, with about 2 million of these being regular attendees at more than 1,200 mosques, according to the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn., a project of the Glenmary Home Missioners. There are 63 million Catholics in the United States.

The number of Muslims has been boosted by immigration and births. And, experts say, Muslims are keen at proselytizing. “Islam is growing more rapidly by taking new converts than Christianity is,” Keating said.

“When I came here in 1993, there was only one mosque in Northern Virginia; now there are seven,” said Daniel Ali, founder of the Christian-Islamic Forum in Annandale, Va. (www.christianislamicforum.org).

The religion of Mohammed is spreading quickly in the nation's prisons, particularly among black inmates. And there is active evangelization on college campuses, where Islamic students are known to distribute tracts to their Christian classmates, making the claim that Christians believe in three gods.

Muslim Myths

That's an age-old myth perpetuated by Muslims, who do not understand the concept of the Trinity, said Keating. “They've been mistaught,” he said. Such myths need to be corrected if there is going to be any evangelization.

Keating said other myths stand as obstacles to Muslim acceptance of Christianity, including the notion that Christ was not really crucified or that he merely swooned and awoke later.

But Christians need to overcome certain misunderstandings about Islam, as well, such as the thought that Muslims have great reverence for Jesus and Mary, he said. “Muslims know almost nothing about Jesus and Mary. There's not much in the Koran about them … There's not much sympathy for Christianity.”

Muslims refer to Christians and Jews as “people of the Book,” indicating a respect for the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, Muslims believe the Bible is inspired, but if there are any contradictions between it and the Koran, Muslims maintain these are due to a mistranslation of the Bible, Keating explained.

Consequently, Christian apologists cannot appeal to the Bible as an authority in talking to Muslims. Keating recommends, rather, appealing to logic and history.

“Islam arose out of a variance of Christianity and a development of animism,” he said. Mohammed encountered unorthodox Christians and members of some Jewish sects in Arabia, from which he got the concept of monotheism. But then he merged in notions from animism.

“Once they realize you are not starting your conversation from the Bible, they're open,” said Ali, who emphasizes a highly personal approach to sharing the faith. That includes not only thoroughly knowing Islam from the Koran and other writings but knowing the person as well. “There are deep divisions in Islam,” he said. “I want to know where this person is from and whether he is a Sunni or a Shiite. They have an entirely different system of belief. And is he in the majority or the minority in his homeland?

“You have to know the theological implications of your own faith and when and where it intersects with the person you are speaking to.”

Converted by Charity

Ali, 43 and a native of the Kurdish region of Iraq, traces his conversion to the “sad” realization that “there is not one quotation in the Koran about God's love for the sinner.” He also disputes the notion that Islam is a peaceful religion, though its followers may be peaceful. “Show me one Islamic state that has lived in peace with its neighbor, or with itself, or one Christian minority that has lived there without persecution,” he said.

One good thing, though, is that it is easier to speak with Muslims than with Westerners about God because religion is so integrated into their way of life, the Christian apologists say.

Anyone who wants to actively pursue dialogue with Muslims, Madrid warned, should remember that many Muslims at this time “feel they are under the microscope.” There is a general feeling among Arabs in the country that their community is under surveillance in the government's war on terrorism. It is possible that a visitor, particularly a white person, visiting a mosque, might be mistaken for an FBI agent.

Aqueel Khan, manager of the Muslim Community Center in Chicago, defended Islam as a peaceful religion and said he would have no ill feelings toward anyone who tried to convert him to Christianity. “Here at the center, groups of Christians come, and we welcome them. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve,” he said. But he seemed to regard converts as “confused” about their way of life.

Madrid said that if he were in a foreign country, “I'd be very careful about visiting a mosque” with an evangelizing intent. In some Islamic countries, proselytizing can be punishable by death. Eight foreign Christian aid workers, including Americans Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, are now on trial in Afghanistan for allegedly trying to spread Christianity.

“But we are all apostles of Christ, even if it means danger,” Madrid added.

Keating pointed out the contradiction that in many Islamic countries Christian evangelizing is strictly forbidden — even to the point where during the Gulf War, U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia were forbidden to wear religious symbols such as crosses and gather for Mass — while in the West Muslims demand the liberty to proselytize.

The Pope, in his Migration Day message, expressed concern for Christians living as a minority in largely Muslim countries “where they unfortunately do not always enjoy a true freedom of religion and conscience.”