NASHVILLE, Tenn. Nearly one in four people worldwide is Muslim, according to a comprehensive demographic study by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The estimate is in line with previous data from other sources like the United Nations and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
According to the study, 1.57 billion, or 23 percent, of the world's estimated 6.8 billion people are Muslim. This number fits almost in the middle of the high estimate of about 26 percent and the lower end of 21 percent popularly used as ranges to describe the global Muslim population.
By comparison, the worldwide Christian population is estimated to be about 2.2 billion, or 1 in 3 people on the planet, according to the CIA Factbook.
In 2010, Pew plans to launch a comprehensive study of the Christian population and to release a more comprehensive report on Muslims. Pew plans to investigate growth rates for both religions.
Here are some of the key findings of the Pew Forum's study:
• 60 percent of all practicing Muslims in the world live in Asia
• 20 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa
• 15 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa
• 2.4 percent live in Europe and less than 1 percent in the Americas
• The world's largest Muslim population can be found in Indonesia. There are more than 200 million Muslims living there.
Of the total Muslim population, Pew estimated that about 90 percent are Sunni Muslims and roughly 10 percent are Shia Muslims living mainly in four countries Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.
In the largest project of its kind to date, Pew analyzed about 1,500 sources of data from 232 countries and territories as part of a more extensive report due out next year aimed at helping people understand religion around the world.
Clyde Meador, the International Mission Board's executive vice president, said the report should motivate believers to reach a world that is lost without Christ.
"The thing we need to realize for instance, the fact that there are 300 million Muslims living in countries that are not majority Muslim is that here are these 300 million people living in places where likely they are more accessible to hearing the Gospel, and quite possibly they are more open to the Gospel in those settings," Meador said.
"Where is there a greater accessibility to them than right here in the United States? Our responsibility is to love these people and to share with them truth as we have opportunity."
Overseas, missionaries seek to make the truth of the Gospel available among Muslims wherever they find openness. In some countries where Islam is the majority religion, such as Indonesia, believers actually have the freedom to share the Gospel wisely, Meador said.
In India, with the third largest Muslim population in the world, there is tremendous freedom to share among the Muslim population, he said, adding that the task grows more difficult in places like Pakistan and the Middle East.
"There are a lot of places where we share the love of Christ through human needs ministries of various kinds, responding to disasters or development-type projects," Meador said. "One response that people have is, 'Why do you do this?' And then we respond about the love of Christ, explaining it as they respond and have increased interest.
"I think if at any point we say that there's no use, that they're beyond the Gospel or we shouldn't be trying to reach them, I think we absolutely contradict Scripture if we say something like that," Meador said.
As believers share the Gospel with Muslims worldwide, one of the most significant challenges adherents to Islam face is cultural resistance to leaving their religion.
"When a person from a strong Muslim background by strong I don't mean necessarily theologically strong or religiously strong, but I mean ethnically strong. When a person from that type of background comes to faith in Christ, he or she loses a lot," Meador said.
"Of course in a few places they may lose their lives. Most often what they lose are family ties, respect of the community and in some cases their jobs. That's the kind of thing that our folks deal with more than anything else," he said.
"A lot of people our folks work with will come to the point of saying, 'I really believe this is true, but I can't commit to it. I can't become a believer because of what it would cost me.' But of course many people are willing to pay the cost, but that is the challenge that's there. That's the greatest challenge."
Meador cited areas of South Asia, North Africa and some regions of Central Asia as places where significant numbers of Muslims are coming to faith in Christ.
One point Meador wanted to make clear to Southern Baptists is that radical, militant Islam is a small minority of the billions of Muslims worldwide. He urged sensitivity toward Muslims they may encounter in their daily lives in the United States.
"When you see that man and woman walking through the aisle at Wal-Mart and she's covered to a large extent, and he's got an unusually long beard or whatever, just know that behind that beard ... behind that covering is a person just like you," Meador said.
"It's a person who has the same joys and hurts. It's a person who has the same needs. It's a person who has the same cares. But it's a person who doesn't know Jesus."
"And that's the difference between you and them. The difference to focus on is not the difference in the way they dress and not the difference in their accent and in their English," he said. "The thing to focus on is here's somebody who needs to know Jesus. And they're not going to be open to knowing Jesus unless they sense you care about them as a person and that you treat them like a person."
"And you treat them like a person because you know they are a person. The fact that they dress differently does not mean they're out to get you."