When Christians embrace Islam

By Johnna Villaviray, Senior Reporter 

(First of Three Parts) 


When the television reporter Richard Rivera stepped

onto the Sulu pier, one thing was on his mind: send

stories to Manila about efforts to recover the Abu

Sayyaf’s 19 Sipadan hostages. 

By the end of the six-week assignment, Rivera brought

home not just war stories but a new faith as well. 

Now answering to the name Abdurahman Ismail, Rivera

has resigned from the network and is now helping to

organize rallies to raise civic awareness. He says he

doesn’t miss his fast life as a reporter and its

perks—booze, payola and girls. 

“Before I became a Muslim, the focus was on money, how

to get ahead in life. But now, I ask myself, ‘What’s

all that for? Isn’t salvation what’s important?’”

Rivera said. 

Rivera is one of the thousands of former Christians

who “reverted” to Islam since the 1990s. The Office of

Muslim Affairs estimates that at least 20,000 Balik

Islam, or “reverts” as they like to be called, live in

traditionally Catholic Luzon. They call themselves

“reverts” rather than converts on the premise that

everyone was born a Muslim. 

Records show that Balik Islam comprises nearly 200,000

of the more than 6.599 million local Muslim community.

It is now the seventh-biggest group of the 13 local

Muslim tribes. Islam is now the fastest-growing

religion in the country. 

Muslims believe that the September 11 attacks on the

United States, while raising suspicion against them,

also piqued public curiosity about Islam. 

“After 9-11, we suddenly had a shortage of reading

materials. The attack cast Muslims in a bad light, but

it also encouraged people to learn more about Islam,

which is good,” said Shariff Soilaman Gonzales.

Gonzales acts as officer in charge of the

International Worldwide Mission (iwwm) after the

group’s imam—Mahmoud Al-Ghafari, an Egyptian—was

deported on suspicion of aiding local terrorists. 

Gonzales, interviewed in the iwwm’s rundown office in

the heart of Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, said the age-old

misconceptions about Islam and Muslims are now helping

to attract the faithful. 

The crude explanation is that people are naturally

curious about what is perceived bad or illegal. To the

Muslims, it’s all part of a divine plan. 

“Everything that happens or will happen in this world

is the plan of Allah,” Gonzales explained. 

The first Filipino reverts were the workers deployed

in Middle Eastern countries, especially in Saudi

Arabia, where shari’a law is enforced. When they came

back, they so impressed many with their zeal and piety

that their family, relatives, friends and neighbors

followed suit. 

Ahmed Santos took the shahada, the Islamic testimony

of faith, while working in Riyadh in 1991. From a

landed military and squarely Catholic family in Anda,

Pangasinan, Santos is now president of the Balik Islam

Unity Congress. 

“My grandfather is a soldier and he taught me that

Muslims would stab me in the back at the first

opportunity. Now, I know that he’s wrong,” Santos said

while sitting in a lotus position on the burgundy

carpet of the air-conditioned mosque he built. 

The mosque occupies the second floor of the four-story

building Santos constructed in suburban Cubao. The

building is a block from the Nativity Parish Church

where he was first married. 

Islam is heavy with divine predestination. Santos

believes that his dreams of a crying Jesus Christ when

he was younger indicated that he should revert to


He reverted in 1990 while working in Saudi Arabia.

While he led a comfortable and moneyed life before,

Santos now faces constant surveillance by suspected

intelligence officers and a daily struggle with


“No regrets. Because this is the will of Allah. And

the brothers are there. People see that, and that

helps them revert,” he said. 

There’s been no serious study on the state of mind of

people who revert to Islam, but law-enforcement

authorities lump them with Muslim radicals. If that

line of thinking were followed, Balik Islam would

share the psychological profile of the terrorists

arrested since September 11. 

A paper prepared by Singapore authorities after the

roundup last year of 31 suspected Jemaah Islamiah

operatives describes the men as having average to

superior intelligence but suffering from low

self-esteem. The paper said membership in a secretive

organization boosts the suspects’ personal image. 

“These men fully understood that they were not

dabbling in childish play,” the document said. “These

men were not ignorant, destitute or disfranchised


The psychological profile made on the alleged Jemaah

Islamiah operatives suggests that they are predisposed

to indoctrination and actually crave for the control

exercised by charismatic religious leaders. 

Zamzamin Amaptuan, chief of Office of Muslim Affairs,

agreed that the reverts are prone to indoctrination to

the “deviant” interpretation of Islam that those

arrested for terrorism follow. 

“They’re more aggressive, but it’s very natural and

human to be so engrossed in a faith that you recently

accepted. In some way, this aggressiveness can be

converted to something else,” he said. 

Ampatuan continued, “It can be taken advantage of by

some people [because it makes them] more prone to

conditioning and exploitation, since they don’t fully


Santos, however, doesn’t mind being lumped with

so-called terror organizations. 

“If being a fundamentalist or an extremist means

following everything in the Koran, like praying five

times a day or responding to the call for jihad [holy

war], then I’d prefer to be called an extremist or a

fundamentalist rather than a nominal Muslim,” he said.

Nooh Caparino, the head of the Islamic Call and

Guidance-Philippines’ da’wah (propagation) program,

observed that reverts to Islam are searching for

spiritual fulfillment. 

“Sometimes people transfer from one affiliation to

another, usually from Christianity to another, and

then when they encounter Islam, they stick there.

That’s because it’s the complete religion,” he said. 

Rivera was one of those butterflies. Born a Catholic,

he was baptized in the Iglesia ni Cristo’s central

church in the mid-1990s before reverting a few years


“Everybody has it in him to convert. The only blocking

factor would be pride,” Santos said. “People who are

too proud to give up materialism and too proud to take

the persecution will not revert and they will not find

peace and salvation.” 

(Continued tomorrow) 


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